Louisiana residents looking to quit smoking will now get six months of treatment if they’re covered by health insurance under a new law signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
Introduced by state Rep. Cedric Glover, D-Shreveport, House Bill 578 requires any health care plan administered in the state to provide at least six months of smoking cessation benefits. All the insured person needs is a recommendation from their physician. The benefits include individual and group counseling and nicotine replacement products, such as nicotine patches, gum, lozenges and nasal spray. Prescription medications, like bupropion and varenicline, are also covered. The mandate applies to both private health insurance and Medicaid.
“We know that nicotine is a very powerful drug,” Glover said at an April meeting of the House Health and Welfare Committee. “Many folks, unfortunately, deal with that challenge on a daily basis, and we believe it’s appropriate to provide an opportunity for those folks to get treatment.”
The law delineates that the benefits can’t be subject to deductibles, co-insurance, co-payments or any other out-of-pocket payments. It comes amid a push to combat tobacco use in Louisiana, which has the 11th highest percentage among U.S. states of adults who smoke, according to the American Lung Association.
Edwards recently signed a law that triples the taxes on nicotine vape products and e-cigarettes, and could ban the vast majority of flavored vapes being sold in the state.
“Two for the price of one”
Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the U.S., and Louisiana’s new law could help address both, said Chad Landry, the president of the Cancer Advocacy Group of Louisiana, who pushed for the bill in the statehouse. Smoking can lead to increased rates of heart disease and obviously, it can lead to lung cancer, and other types of cancers,” Landry said. “You get two for the price of one with this bill, and hopefully reduce the chance of heart disease and reduce the rate of cancer in our state.”
Advocacy groups have slammed Louisiana in the past for not spending enough on fighting tobacco use after bringing in hundreds of millions each year in cigarette tax revenue.
Currently, Louisiana’s Medicaid program and state employee health insurance plan covers nicotine substitution products and medications, but only some individual and group counseling. Starting on January 1, it will cover a minimum of six months of counseling.
Dr. Michael Celestin Jr., an LSU professor and the director of Louisiana’s Tobacco Control Initiative, said the policy won’t offer any new benefits to one important group: the Louisiana residents who don’t have any insurance at all. “A sweeping policy like this for all health insurance takes care of a large amount of the population in the state,” Celestin said. “But it has its drawbacks because it doesn’t cover those who are uninsured.”
Just over 9% of Louisiana adults aren’t covered by employer plans or Medicaid, according to the 2021 Louisiana Health Insurance Survey. The new law wouldn’t grant them access to smoking cessation treatment. Still, these patients could benefit from programs like Ochsner Health’s free tobacco cessation services, which offers treatment regardless of insurance status.
Celestin said ensuring that those who have insurance know about the benefits should also be a priority.“Just because you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come,” he said. When the bill was introduced, it required the health department to implement a “public awareness campaign” to inform residents about the benefits. This was removed by the Health and Welfare panel so the bill would not require any state spending.
Landry calls this bill “common sense legislation” to help improve overall health in Louisiana — a state that often falls at the bottom of health rankings. “Let’s get people off of smoking and up the health rankings,” Landry said.