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WI’s Walker wants public employees who light up to pay up

By   /   February 21, 2013  /   34 Comments

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — First pensions. Now cigarettes.

Gov. Scott Walker is asking some state public employees to kick in again — this time to kick the habit.

PAY UP: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants public workers who light up to pay up – $50 per month more. What do you think?

Tucked inside the governor’s 500-plus page, $67.999-billion budget proposal is a “win-win” state wellness program aimed at cutting health care costs. Among other provisions, the governor recommends assessing state employees who smoke $50 per month hoping  they will be “encouraged to avail themselves of smoking cessation and other services designed to help them kick the habit.”

The provision could affect about 10 percent of employees, out of approximately 69,000 state employees total, according to the state Department of Administration.

There were 70,155 active employees in state employee health plans in 2011, according to the state Department of Employee Trust Funds’ 2012 Group Health Insurance Fact Sheet. Another 24,860 retirees were enrolled.

The fee is expected to “save the state” $2.7 million over the biennium, DOA said.

The idea is clear: Smokers have more health-related problems, costing taxpayers more money.

“(B)ecause health care costs of smokers and other people who use tobacco are estimated to be 30 to 35 percent higher than nonsmokers, the Governor recommends that a tobacco user charge be included for state employee health plans beginning in calendar year 2014,” Walker’s budget states.

But no matter how you slice it, the fee is akin to a “sin tax,” in the same vain as a $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes, says Adam Hoffer, assistant economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Hoffer is co-author of Sin Taxes: Size, Growth, and Creation of the Sindustry,” a study by the Mercatus Center, a free-market research organization at George Mason University.

“It’s just a separate tax on smokers, in a different form,” he said.

Private companies and the public sector have long provided prevention incentives, from employee smoking cessation and weight loss programs to cash for reaching health goals.

Wisconsin appears to be out in front of the public worker “sin tax” concept, according to Hoffer. Arizona has proposed a so-called “fat tax,” a $50 annual fee on Medicaid patients who fail to lose weight or quit smoking. Critics have dubbed that proposal “cruel and regressive” because it targets after poor people.

Stephanie Marquis, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, said 13 other states have a similar provision or the same provision.

Hoffer questions whether the state of Wisconsin would have to administer screenings to determine whether employees would have to fork over the $50 a month smoker’s fee. Would such testing offset revenue from the fee?

Walker proposes state workers participate in a wellness assessment and biometric screening, to help identify potential health concerns. The data would remain confidential, according to the budget document, but aggregated data would be kept so that the state could “design effective and targeted wellness programs that best meet the needs of its workforce.”

“In this, the Year of Well-being, the Governor will kick-off a concerted effort to encourage all state employees to focus on and improve their health and well-being,” the budget states. “In addition to important benefits to the individual, this effort will save money in the long run, by preventing chronic diseases and reducing treatment costs as well as reducing absenteeism and use of sick leave, helping state government to be more effective and efficient.”

Just how public employee labor unions feel about the governor’s proposal isn’t clear. Several American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees locals did not return Wisconsin Reporter’s calls for comment. At least three state employees smoking outside state agency buildings Thursday afternoon on Madison’s Webster Street did not want to comment on the record.

Walker’s Act 10, which curbed collective bargaining for most public employees in the state, required, among other demands, public-sector employees contribute to their pensions and more to their health care.

The smoking fee would target a select group of public employees. Hoffer said the assessment could face a challenge — under the Affordable Care Act. The health care law, dubbed Obamacare by critics like Walker, stipulates that insurers cannot discriminate based on a pre-existing condition.

“I think someone could argue smoking is a pre-existing condition,” the political science professor said. “If you have been smoking for a long time it seems almost unfair, according to this new act, to charge them a new rate.”

Virginia’s Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has asked the county attorney to determine whether they can legally require employees to quit smoking or if they can institute a ban on hiring smokers, the Washington Examiner reported in December.

A Walker spokesman did not respond to a Wisconsin Reporter email asking whether the administration has any concerns about potential legal questions surrounding the smoking fee.

The governor takes aim at the ACA in his employee wellness proposal.

“Health care is one of the fastest growing costs for both the public and private sectors. This trend will only accelerate as the federal government implements the Affordable Care Act, which contains numerous taxes and fees on providers and on employers who offer their employees health care coverage,” the budget states.

The Mercatus study noted that the temptations for states to use selective excise taxation is “politically irresistible since the revenues generated in such ways can be reallocated to the public treasury, while some taxpayers, who are portrayed as imposing costs on society at large, are penalized.”

Wisconsin, for instance, used of a Big Tobacco lawsuit settlement and the cigarette tax money.

The Badger State was one of 46 states that received a combined $206 billion in the late 1990s Master Settlement Agreement. The Badger State was awarded $5.2 billion over 25 years. But when budgets tightened early last decade, then-Gov. Scott McCallum sold the payout and the state received a lump sum payout of $1.6 billion. The money helped solve the state’s budget crisis — until the next budget crisis.

“That money is gone, and now the cigarette tax is the only source” for the existing Tobacco Control and Prevention Program,  Dona Wininsky, director of public policy and communication for the American Lung Association – Wisconsin, told Wisconsin Reporter earlier this month.

Hoffer, a state employee who doesn’t smoke, said he would be interested to see whether the $50 monthly smoking fee goes to offset health care costs.

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]



M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

  • My former employer Pepsi Co imposed a smokers fee on there medical ins. many years ago ! Just another case of public employees getting hit with these costs and fees many years after the private sector workers !! Welcome to the real world of medical ins my friends !!


    I am a stinking smoker and do not have a problem with this, however, smokers in fact are being discriminated against. Smokers are not the only segment of the population that have been said to increase healthcare costs. In fact I can guarantee that the majority of the calorie challenged folks riding around stores on electric scooters are not smokers.

  • Jack Lohman

    I love it. This from a guy whose campaign included repeal of the state’s restaurant smoking ban. The prostitute’s clothes are changing.


    I think it was the bar smoking ban………Jack

  • JB

    There’s nothing wrong with this! Those of us that pay for our own health insurance, (i.e. we are NOT on some employers health insurance plan), pay extra for EVERYTHING! Where if we smoke, if we’re over weight, if we have high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, whether we are male or female and even where we live! Consider yourselves LUCKY that they only want to raise your fees in you smoke!

  • scott

    I’m really not sure that smokers really have increased health issues. I’m willing to bet that 75% of people these days have increased health issues because of their diets and lack of exercise. I would be all for a so called “sin” tax for smokers if it would be a tax/penalty for everyone with increased health risks like it is in the real world.

  • Jack Lohman

    Technically there has not been an “increase,” but there is a “differential” and smokers are on the high side. Obesity is indeed an added cost. But to all of those smokers out there (I was one of them) you can dump this costly/dirty habit with one visit to a hypnotist. (Don’t know how it works for obesity.)

  • KK

    It is never ok, IMO to single out any segment of society….NEVER….whether smokers pay more or not is not the issue….it is class warfare. Smokers already pay tons of taxes on a legal product….maybe people who drink beer should pay more for their health insurance….or maybe anyone who is overweight or someone who has a preexisting condition….where does it end?

  • Jack Lohman

    JB, forgive me as I alter the subject a little, but we Americans are stupid as hell. I’m 75 and on Medicare, and for 25 years owned a health care company in 4 states. But my kids and your kids and you and every other American would be far better off with a single-payer Medicare-for-all system. It’d be the best “jobs” bill ever, as employers would spend their money on growth rather than excessive insurance company premiums. We could provide health coverage to 100% of Americans with this 95% private system, and save our country $400 billion in the process. The insurance and pharmaceutical industries would hate it, and we can thank our corrupt political system and its campaign bribes for what we have. Though this is not a “conservative” fix, it would be the smartest move ever and would replace our stupid ObamaCare system. Smoker or not.

  • david kochs idea of having street walker tax the poor. Koch is walkers pimp.

  • Verna Bidgood

    Walker has just lost any support from me.

  • mks

    In Wisconsin, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because of “use of use or nonuse of a lawful product off the employer’s premises during nonworking hours for an employer”. This refers to use of legal products like alcohol or tobacco. Employer’s cannot discriminate against employees in terms and conditions of employment – like benefits. I predict this new provision will be appealed.

  • Prisonurse

    So how are they planning to prove a worker smokes? They’re going to waste money following all of us home to verify our answers, sniff our jackets, follow us to the bar? I quit two years ago but gosh maybe they’ll count the second hand exposure so they can make more money. Now i need a drink

  • Leah

    The author clearly wants us to feel that Walker is unfairly discriminating against smokers, but citing the professor who calls smoking a “pre-existing condition” is just over the top. It’s a choice. And it does lead to higher health care costs. Which can either be passed on to everyone else with higher premiums across the board, or can be paid by the individual that made that choice in the first place. Which one sounds more fair to you?
    The question of “where do you draw the line” is legitimate, though.

  • I cannot wait to leave this state. The haters and bigots that support this gov deserve every second of suffering and oppression they are going to get now. Nice job Teabaggers, you ruined a half way decent place in no time flat. More of the Teabagger notion of ‘less government’ in your life, eh?

  • plankbob

    “Small” government at its finest.

  • Bobby G

    Don’t let the door hit you in the butt……

  • Bobby G

    Let’s see, approximately 7000 union workers paying more for health insurance. Union rights or non-smoker rights, who will the liberals back on this.

  • Bobby G

    Don’t bet on it, it has been in effect in the public sector for years.

  • Next, it’s bacon and doughnuts.

  • lisalake

    And when all the smokers are gone… who will pay for all welfare baby’s healthcare?

  • aberdeenvet

    What about an overweight tax? Or an underweight tax.

    The problem with all these efforts to “save the state” money is that the “savings” will not reduce the tax burden on the tax paying citizens, since the “savings” will be spent on other government boondoggles.

  • Don

    This is statistics talking. Smokers have statistically proven to have more health issues than non-smokers. Regardless of who proposed this, it can be shown through evidence that this is the case.
    This is the same as car insurance providers charging more once you get a ticket. You have proven yourself to be higher risk by your actions and therefore are more apt to cost more money.

  • This higher insurance premium price for those who knowingly incur increased health costs to taxpayers is NOT discriminatory. No one says you can’t smoke and be a state employee; you can. You just have to pay your FAIR SHARE higher cost of coverage for the privilege of choosing to ignore 50 years of public health warnings about tobacco.

  • Exactly right. If a State employee has a problem with this, try being a private employee or being self insured. The State has no obligation to subsidize this well documented addiction.

  • My suggestion is that we draw the line at the preponderance of scientific evidence. Arguments still rage about the number of pounds or BMI overage that means, for sure, negative health effects. Until there is a clear line, it cannot by definition be drawn. But there is NO safe level of tobacco use. NONE. Let’s do what we can, let’s make a start where there is NO argument (except from Big Tobacco, of course).

  • This is ridiculous! Walker is an idiot! So let’s add this “sin tax” fat people, because they have more issues (heart disease, diabetes, etc..); how about former farmers that have “farmer’s lung”; or maybe those with autoimmune disorders as they too have a lot of health issues, where do we draw the line?? That’s discrimination! Plain and simple!!

  • Matt

    Grammar, grammar, grammar: in the same vein as–not “in the same vain as”; because it targets poor people–not “because it targets after poor people”

  • Steve

    So…trying to cut healthcare costs by trying to cut back smokers is good in theory, but won’t work. Second hand smoke, bonfire smoke, etc etc. It wouldn’t be worth testing and would be expensive. I’d rather have obese people who work for the state pay a fat tax since nearly 2/3 of Americans are overweight or obese. Funny how the liberals slam Walker over this. Please tell me where they are in NY about banning sodas over 16 oz in restaurants. Isn’t the left trying to ban everything they see isn’t healthy for you? Guns? Poor mileage cars? Smoking in bars – That was all Doyle. Educate yourselves.

  • bubba j

    Our company already does the swab test….$50 is nothing, our family ins. goes up $500 a month if we don’t pass. One fella got a blood draw cuz his swab was iffy and got nailed for 2nd hand smoke ! We work in smokers home everyday ! They told him too bad, what BS !

  • Hesanidiot

    So penalize smokers, don’t penalize the closet alcoholics, the people who are overweight, the people that drive unsafely, etc etc etc. Seriously? It is my right to smoke whether SKIPPY THE PINHEAD likes it or not. He will have more than one lawsuit on his hands if he thinks public employees are going to stand for this. The guy resembles Hitler in so many ways.

  • As Mark Twain said in his autobiography there are three kinds of lies, LIES, DAMN LIES and SATISTICS, the fact is that smokers do not cost society more in health care costs, they actually cost less. But hey don’t let facts get in the way of your crusade! http://veritasvincitprolibertate.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/stanton-glantz-vs-the-tea-party/

  • None? Ever heard the phrase “dose makes the poison”? Care to show this mythological linear dose response curve? Even the 2006 Surgeon General Report admits they used questionable methodology on page 21. But hey use emotion rather then facts, it works right?


  • Pam

    I’m a teabagger, smoke and I am leaving this state because of taxes and oppression, can’t blame everything on the Teaparty.