Editor’s Note: John F. Banzhaf III is an emeritus professor of public interest law at the George Washington University Law School, and the retired founder and executive director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). He led the successful movement to ban smoking in workplaces and public places and championed requiring smokers and the tobacco industry to pay their fair share of the costs of smoking. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s time to stop forcing the vaccinated majority of Americans to accommodate those who refuse to take this simple step – especially now that at least one Covid-19 vaccine has been fully approved.
The surge in infections caused by the coronavirus’ highly contagious Delta variant has made it clear that the unvaccinated pose a deadly risk to others and themselves. Vaccinated workers, students, airline passengers and others who go out in public should not have to bear the risks and huge financial costs that the unvaccinated are imposing on society.
Think of what we do with smokers. When it became clear that secondhand smoke threatened the health and very lives of blameless nonsmokers, governments and those in charge got tough on smoking in public. They made it much harder, if not impossible, for thoughtless smokers to light up in restaurants, on sidewalks, on public transportation and in other places where nonsmokers have to breathe their toxic fumes.
Using the same solid reasoning, many employers, colleges, theaters, sports stadiums and other venues are beginning to insist that their workers, students, and patrons be vaccinated – a movement hopefully to be accelerated by the full approval of the Pfizer vaccine this week by the Food and Drug Administration.
The refusal of many Americans to be vaccinated has imposed financial costs on the rest of us. For example, in an analysis last week, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the hospitalization cost of treating preventable Covid-19 in unvaccinated patients during June and July alone was $2.3 billion – with the costs “borne not only by patients but also by society more broadly.”
And that number is dwarfed by the incalculable additional costs of lockdowns, occupancy restrictions in restaurants and elsewhere, disruption of schooling now and to come, jobs lost to layoffs and Americans struggling to pay rent and mortgages or losing their homes.
We need to make sure that those financial costs at least are borne as much as possible by those who are responsible for them, and not by the majority who got their shots.
People may claim that they have a right to refuse vaccination. But that does not give them the right to put the lives of others at risk, nor to force the majority to pay for their bad decision.
Once the American public began to focus on the huge costs of smoking rather than simply the risks smoking posed to bystanders, many steps were taken to require smokers to bear more of their fair share of those unnecessary financial costs.
One example can be found in the Affordable Care Act, which includes a 50% surcharge on health insurance rates for those who smoke, while another is the ever-increasing tax rates on cigarettes in a growing number of jurisdictions.
Years ago I helped persuade our nation’s insurance commissioners to agree that when people engaged in behaviors that substantially increased their health risk and related medical costs, like smoking, they should pay more for health insurance.
This policy was premised on a basic principle: It’s your monkey; keep him off my back. And by making smoking more expensive, it had the side benefit of helping induce many people to quit.
Applying this policy to vaccination refusers should be even more effective, because getting vaccinated is quick and easy, while many people find quitting smoking difficult, if not impossible.
Here is what those who have been vaccinated, and are being victimized, should be demanding:
1. Vaccine refusers should pay more for life and health insurance, just as smokers have long done. For example, Delta Air Lines announced this week that beginning in November, it will charge its unvaccinated employees up to $200 a month more for health insurance, and also limit the number of sick days unvaccinated employees may take if they contract Covid-19.
2. Where unvaccinated workers, students or others are required to be tested frequently, they and no one else should bear the cost of testing.
3. If the unvaccinated want to get hotel rooms or board cruise ships or fly on airplanes, they should have to pay more to cover the additional costs of thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing the places they may infect. They should also be charged more because of the added burdens associated with requiring all airlines, bus and train passengers to be masked.
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Covid-19 is now an “epidemic of the unvaccinated.” But we the vaccinated are still being unnecessarily exposed to the risks – however small – of illness, hospitalization, “long covid,” and death.
We the vaccinated have to wear masks in many places like offices and airplanes where masks would probably not be required if most Americans had their shots.
And the vaccinated are unfortunately also being forced to bear most of the financial costs so that some can remain refusers.
Let’s stop coddling the minority, and hold the unvaccinated responsible for the consequences of their own deadly decisions.