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How Do Insurance Companies Know If You Are A Smoker?

Written by Jason Patterson

Life insurance coverage protects your loved ones from financial stresses in the event of your passing. Chances are, if you own a life insurance policy, or are in the process of purchasing life insurance (or any type of insurance), you probably are aware the best rates are dependent on your health and lifestyle.

Smokers pay higher life insurance premiums as a result of their health risks. Non-tobacco users are also screened for health conditions, however, smokers do have a much larger risk for heart disease. On average, smokers pay 15-20% higher rates than non-smokers because of the increased medical risks.

As a smoker, this can add up to thousands of dollars in extra premiums over the length of the term policy. Naturally, many smokers are looking for a way out of their classification on life insurance applications.

This can come in the form of quitting for a few months, finding the best life insurance companies that are especially affordable for smokers and tobacco users, or just flat out lying on their applications.

Lying about smoking on life insurance applications is by no means recommended or encouraged as it can result in higher premiums or total denial of coverage.

Essentially it is fraud and if you pass due to smoking-related causes, the life insurance company can refuse to pay out your death benefit.

Not to mention, unless you are applying for a no medical exam life insurance policy (which has higher life insurance rates than policies with medical examination), an insurance company will likely find out whether or not you smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products during the medical examination process.

What Is Considered A Nicotine Product?

Every life insurance company uses a different set of standards when classifying nonsmoker rates from smokers when assigning your life insurance quote.

Here is a list tobacco uses that may have you placed in a tobacco category, despite never smoking a cigarette:

  • Chewing Tobacco
  • Nicotine gum
  • E-cigarettes or Electronic Cigarettes
  • Vaping
  • Nicotine Patches
  • Cigar Smokers
  • Marijuana users

So, how can life insurance companies tell if you are a smoker?

Medical Tests For Nicotine and Tobacco Usage

what are some medical tests for nicotineBefore being approved for a life insurance policy, you will be required to take a medical examination with your Primary Care Physician (PCP) to screen for any medical conditions.

This is not true of course if you are applying for a no medical exam policy.

But for the purposes of this article, we will be referring to life insurance policies that require a medical examination such as a whole, universal, or term life insurance policies.

In order to determine whether you are a smoker/tobacco user or not, life insurers look for a few key chemical compounds that these life insurance smoker tests aim to uncover.  The main two chemicals they identify are nicotine and cotinine.

Yes, these are two different chemicals.

To explain a bit further, nicotine is one of the main addictive substances in most tobacco products.

Cotinine is what nicotine is then metabolized into the inside of our livers.  This is how our body detoxifies nicotine, in order to remove it from the body over time.

So, despite what many people think, most medical tests actually seek to isolate and identify cotinine rather than nicotine, because it is in the body for longer, and is also easier to detect.

Because the same chemical is in chew tobacco and e-cigarettes, be sure to notify the underwriter that you vape or smoke cigars and do not smoke cigarettes. Again, some life insurance companies just tobacco products differently when assigning your life insurance rates.


Now that we have a bit more of an understanding regarding the active chemicals in tobacco products that life insurance companies are looking for, let’s answer the real question at hand:

How Long Does Cotinine Stay in Your Body?

First of all, it is important to specify that everyone’s body is different.  And as a result, our bodies all process toxins differently.

The time it takes for cotinine to leave your body depends on your:

  • Age
  • Level of physical activity
  • Amount of water you drink
  • How often you smoke
  • How long you have smoked for
  • Diet

Because the timeframe of cotinine to leave your system for medical exams can vary based on all of these factors, we often advise that any cigarette smokers wait at least a month after quitting before taking a medical exam’s nicotine test.

However, many life insurance companies will still consider you a smoker long after you are capable of passing a medical exam as a non-smoker.  This time period is often 1-2 years, but in some cases, it can be as long as 5 years.

While this may seem discouraging, there are some life insurance companies that encourage smokers to quit and reward those who do.

If you specify that you are in the process of quitting, or plan to in the future, some companies give you the option to re-take your medical examination after a period of time (usually 18 months – 2 years) into your policy.

Once you pass this new medical exam without any cotinine or nicotine in your system, you will be placed into a lower risk group, and therefore receive lower premiums.

This process is called reclassification.  Many companies offer it to their policyholders.

Secondly, it is equally important to understand that there are a multitude of different methods used in order to test for nicotine and cotinine.

Depending on the type of test administered, cotinine and nicotine can be detected from further back in time.

How Do Insurance Companies Find Out if You Smoke?

Urine Tests

This is the most common method of testing if someone is a smoker.  It is often administered first for most life insurance medical examinations.

Urine tests can get results as quickly as 5 minutes after taking the test.

As we learned earlier, cotinine is the main chemical that life insurance medical exams seek to identify in order to determine if applicants are frequent smokers.

How long can you detect cotinine in your urine?

On average, cotinine stays in your urine for about 3-4 days.  However, among people who are regular smokers, this time frame can be more like 3-4 weeks.

Due to the fact that everyone’s body processes toxins differently, it can be difficult to give an accurate time frame that applies to everyone.

Occasionally, due to chemicals we ingest from foods, people can falsely test positive for cotinine in urine tests.  As a result, oftentimes, a urine test is coupled with a secondary test in order to ensure that the results are accurate.  More often than not, urine tests are coupled with saliva tests.

Saliva Tests

Saliva tests are the second most commonly administered medical tests that test for tobacco usage.  Oftentimes, they are used in conjunction with other tests like blood or urine.

Usually, saliva tests are simply done by taking a swab from the inside of your cheeks or under your tongue.  The results are usually within a few days, but can take as little as 12 hours with modern technology.

How long can you detect cotinine in your saliva?

Cotinine often appears in your saliva 4 days after smoking or using a tobacco product.  However, much like urine, it can take up to 3-4 weeks for cotinine to completely leave your saliva.  This variation in time frame goes back to the factors we listed above.

Blood Tests

Cotinine blood tests are far less common than both urine and saliva tests. Many insurance policies will not require applicants to take a blood test.

However, there are a few cases that can warrant a blood test. First, some companies require them no matter what.

Second, if you are in a higher risk class, or are applying for a policy that has a very high face amount, it is likely you will be asked to take a blood test. Usually, the policy has to be for $2,000,000 or more.

Naturally, the more an insurance company has to pay out upon your death, the more risk you pose to them, and the more research they will do in order to mitigate that risk.

How long does it take to get cotinine out of your blood?

Cotinine can typically be detected in the bloodstream anywhere from 3 to 10 days after smoking.

However, depending on your smoking habits and the other factors on our list above, cotinine can stay in your bloodstream for up to one month in heavy smokers.

After this, it is nearly impossible to detect cotinine in blood because our bodies renew our entire blood supply monthly.

Hair Tests

Finally, comes hair tests, as the least common form of life insurance smoker tests.

Very rarely is this type of testing called upon in medical examinations for life insurance.

This is mainly because the tests are very expensive to administer in comparison to urine, saliva, and blood tests.

How long can you detect cotinine in your hair?

Hair tests are the most accurate of all the tests.  They also trace the furthest back in time.

Because your hair grows out as dead cells are pushed out of our bodies, your hair can tell a story about your habits that is very long.

In fact, the story your hair tells is just as long as your hair itself.

For instance, if you have been growing your hair out for 6 years, then that is 6 years of traceable data on your habits.

On the flip side, if your head is shaved, or was cut a few months after quitting, then you should be in the clear.

I wouldn’t sweat it though, it is very unlikely a hair test would be administered unless you have a very high face value policy, in excess of $2,000,000.


Life Insurance Smoker Tests – What to Know

Lying about smoking on life insurance applications is never a good idea.

Not only can it cause you to be denied coverage, but it is likely that your insurance provider will find out the truth one way or another.

Due to the fact that most insurers only consider you a smoker if you have smoked within the last year, and they also give the opportunity to reclassify within 18 months to 2 years after becoming a policyholder, there is virtually no upside to lying.

Cotinine levels after quitting smoking drop dramatically within the first few weeks.

It is likely that if you can show an effort to quit your PCP and insurer, they will be willing to work with you towards the best health rating now and in the future.

There are hundreds of options when it comes to life insurance for smokers. It is important in the application process to make sure that you have given yourself the best chance to obtain the most affordable rates for the coverage you need by comparing your options.

About Jason Patterson
About Jason Patterson

Jason Patterson has been in the insurance industry for over fifteen years. Starting in 2005, he became one of the first agents to sell medicare supplements online. From that small start, he grew an agency that helped thousands of people with their insurance needs in all fifty states.

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