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Without a doubt, your life insurance quoteswill soar if you smoke a pack of Marlboros a day.

But what if you occasionally smoke shisha at your favorite hookah lounge, or break out the cigars on poker night? Do you dare tell a life insurance agent that you smoke pot?

The distinction between “smoker” and “nonsmoker” for a life insurance application gets hazy beyond the standard cigarette.

“If we interviewed underwriters at 10 to 20 different insurance companies, we’d get 10 to 20 different answers,” says James Miles, a consulting staff fellow with the Society of Actuaries in Schaumburg, Ill.

hookahEven in a single insurance company, the rules for who is and isn’t a smoker might be different, depending on the type and amount of insurance you want to buy, Miles says.

Life insurance companies began using “smoking” rates in the 1970s after the release of the original U.S. surgeon general’s report on smoking and health. Generally, life insurance companies assume alternative forms of tobacco and nicotine are as risky as cigarettes until there is strong evidence showing otherwise, Miles says.

Once a policy has been issued, insurance companies can’t back out if they’ve made the wrong decision, except in cases of fraud by the applicant. That’s why they base rates on hard data, which take time to accumulate.

It’s not your father’s cigarette

Smoking the hookah, a Turkish water pipe, has grown popular at trendy hookah bars across the country. Although the experience is a lot hipper than chain-smoking cigarettes at the bowling alley, it counts as tobacco use for a life insurance application. So, you’ll likely be rated a smoker, especially if you’re a frequent hookah user. The same goes for standard pipe smoking.

Life insurance application questions vary among insurers, but they get specific when it comes to tobacco. One insurance company application asks: “Have you ever used tobacco or any nicotine product in any form?” If the answer is “yes,” the application asks for details, including the type of product, when you last used it and how frequently you use it.

Electronic cigarettes — battery-powered, nonflammable devices that look much like regular cigarettes — don’t contain tobacco. Instead they deliver nicotine in a vapor that users inhale.

The products don’t produce secondhand smoke or deliver some of the nasty chemicals that burning cigarettes do. But health officials still worry about their safety. Life insurers are likely to view them with caution until studies show they’re safe, Miles says.

Definitions of ‘smokers’

Some insurers are more lenient than others.

“Some companies don’t allow any tobacco or nicotine use in the last five years for you to be rated as a nonsmoker,” says Michael Silverman, president of the Gloron Agency Inc., an independent insurance brokerage in New York. “For others, it’s the last 12 months, and some will rate the occasional cigar smoker a nonsmoker.”

That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to shop around when you’re buying a policy.

Bob Garrison, president of Insurance Connection USA, an independent agency in Denton, Texas, says he hasn’t encountered any hookah smokers in Texas ranch country. But a number of small life insurers in Texas rate cigar smokers and those who chew tobacco as nonsmokers. The rules vary among companies regarding how frequently you can smoke cigars and still qualify for the best rates.

When life insurance rates go to pot

Pot smokers might be able to honestly answer “no” when the application asks if they use tobacco, but they’ll still have some explaining to do about drug use. The life insurance industry considers marijuana use a risk because of its potential to lead to harder drugs, Miles says.

“It’s not necessarily a reason to decline, but it would certainly raise a red flag,” he says.

Silverman says some life insurance companies reject applicants who smoke pot, and others quote them smokers’ rates.

Some marijuana users get scared when they see the drug-use question and decide not to apply, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a nonprofit group that advocates the legalization of marijuana. Some of those who proceed with their applications are declined or quoted high rates because of their marijuana use.

Getting better rates no matter what you’re smoking

Regardless of what you smoke, your best bet is to consult an independent life insurance agent who sells products from a variety of companies and knows which insurers are most likely to approve your application and offer you the best rates. Look for agents who have deep experience working with clients who smoke.

Fudging the truth is a bad idea. The life insurance medical exam can show you lied, and even if you pass the lab tests, the insurance company can later refuse to pay out on a policy if it learns you misrepresented information on your application.

“Be straight because nothing good can come of it if you lie to an insurance company,” Silverman says.

Here are expensive medical conditions when you’re shopping for life insurance.

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