By Alex Glenn
If you want to avoid coughing up high premiums for life insurance, giving up smoking is a great start. Women who smoke pay an average of $1,071 more per year for term life insurance than nonsmokers, while men pay $1,455 more, according to NerdWallet research on rates for a 20-year, $500,000 policy at ages 35 and 45.
Here's the rub: Even if you think that you've kicked the habit -- or that you never really started it -- a life insurance company might disagree.
Going a month without cigarettes or switching to chewing tobacco, for instance, might be enough to remove the "smoker" label in your mind. But insurance companies are tougher to convince, and you could still face smokers' rates when shopping for life insurance even if your final drag is behind you.
Here are four nonsmoking defenses that you and your life insurer may butt heads over.
1. You recently quit
Seems clear enough. You no longer smoke, so your life insurer surely categorizes you as a nonsmoker, right?
Well, it depends.
In most cases, your life insurance quotes won't reflect your healthier lifestyle until you've been tobacco-free for 12 months.
Even then, most companies reserve their best potential rates for folks who abstain longer. To crack the most affordable pricing tier, you need to avoid tobacco for three to five years, depending on the insurer.
2. You're trying to quit with help from nicotine substitutes
Attempting to quit smoking is worth a pat on the back -- but not a break on your life insurance rates with some companies.
In its underwriting guidelines, AIG says it still considers applicants to be tobacco users if they use any nicotine-heavy substitutes, such as gum, patches, electronic cigarettes or vaporizers. Similarly, Voya states that you will be considered a nonsmoker only if you've used "no tobacco or nicotine products in any form."
However, Prudential allows nicotine gum and patch users to qualify for the company's nonsmoker prices.
3. You use smokeless tobacco
Although you're not technically smoking, using chewing tobacco, snuff, dissolvables and other cigarette alternatives could still lead to higher life insurance quotes.
Like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco causes serious health problems and is extremely addictive due to its nicotine content, two factors that concern most life insurers.
More forgiving companies may allow occasional use of smokeless tobacco. And a few, such as Prudential and Lincoln Financial, offer varying levels of nonsmoker rates even to habitual chewers and dippers.
4. You stick to weed
Although most insurers have hard and fast rules on tobacco and nicotine, their attitudes toward marijuana are evolving. Some companies allow sporadic pot use, some none at all, and others don't yet have underwriting rules in place.
If you have a prescription for medical marijuana, you have a chance to qualify for the best nonsmoker rates, depending on your overall health, including the condition the marijuana is designed to treat.
For nonmedicinal marijuana, depending on the company, you may be considered a nonsmoker if you use weed occasionally. MetLife, for example, offers "preferred plus" nonsmoker prices for those who get high less than once a week on average.
Chronic pot users without a prescription will typically be stuck with smokers' rates or could lose out on coverage altogether. For instance, Lincoln National denies policies for those who use weed four or more times per week. Transamerica is even stricter, setting its limit at nine times per month.
Whether you prefer cannabis or tobacco, it's never smart to lie about your smoking habits to get better rates when you're shopping for a policy. This is illegal and could constitute fraud if you're found out -- it could come out, for example, in a life insurance medical exam.
Because one insurer's definition of a smoker may not match another's, it's good to shop around and get multiple quotes.
And if you happen to start smoking after you've bought a policy at a nonsmoking rate, you can relax. Your price is based on your health and lifestyle when you purchased the policy, and bad habits you start after that can't affect your rate.
Alex Glenn is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.