Plan would sanction Minnesota welfare recipients for smoking

Friday, December 17th 2004, 8:39 pm
By: News On 6

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) _ A legislator wants to penalize poor people for smoking, on grounds they're driving up Minnesota's health costs.

Rep. Marty Seifert, the chairman of the House State Government Finance Committee, said Friday he'll introduce legislation next month to impose higher premiums, co-payments or economic sanctions for people getting state assistance who don't quit smoking.

``The bottom line is, if you're a recipient of health and welfare benefits, we expect you to stop smoking with the taxpayers' money,'' the Republican said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned back a plan from Gov. Tim Pawlenty to ban food stamp recipients from spending their benefits on junk food. The USDA said such a ban might stigmatize people receiving assistance.

Reining in health care costs is one of the top priorities for the legislative session that starts Jan. 4.

Seifert's plan would test smokers on welfare periodically to verify that they've quit. He said the state could help them enroll in programs to kick the habit.

Forcing welfare recipients to quit smoking would be discriminatory, said Linden Gawboy, of the Minnesota Welfare Rights Coalition.

``Are the legislators going to get their salaries cut if they don't quit smoking?'' she said. ``Smoking is an addiction. They've made it so much harder to get health care, people can't even get help.''

The Legislature last year used $1 billion from a settlement with tobacco companies to help plug a $4.2 billion deficit. That meant the end of an anti-smoking campaign aimed at teenagers.