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Blair Horner: New York State must help its poorest smokers

New York State’s efforts to reduce smoking have had a tremendous impact.  Between 2003 and 2010, the adult smoking rate in New York fell by 28 percent.  During that time, the nation’s smoking rate slipped only 11 percent.  New York high school students’ smoking rate dropped an incredible 38 percent, more than twice the nation’s decline.

Why the success?  New York has enacted public health policies that work.  New York has banned smoking in all public and workplaces and has the highest cigarette tax in the country.  When it comes to the cigarette tax, it’s the basic law of economics: the higher the tax, the less smoking that occurs – particularly among children.

Yet there is one group of smokers in New York who have not seen a decline – low income smokers.  While New York’s lowest income smokers have a much lower smoking rate than the national average (24 percent vs. 34 percent), that rate has stagnated over the past decade.

As a result, as the state’s cigarette tax has increased, the percentage of cigarette spending by the poor has gone up too.  A report released last week estimated that New York smokers who are poor spend a whopping 25 percent of their income on cigarettes.

The number is so unbelievable, let me state it again:  the poorest New York smokers spend one quarter of their income on smoking.

How can that be?  What happened to the laws of economics?  The difference is that smoking is addictive.  In fact, cigarette smoking is more addictive than heroin use.  Unless there are therapies to help smokers to quit, it’s very hard for most of them to do so. 

As we all know, poor people are the least likely to have access to those needed therapies.  While Medicaid offers some therapies, those without insurance coverage have virtually no help.

In addition, the tobacco industry is well aware that smoking correlates with income, the lower the income; the more likely someone is to smoke (although the vast majority of poor people do not smoke).

So, Big Tobacco targets its marketing on this population.

How should government respond?  The best way is to invest more of its cigarette tax dollars in programs designed to help poor smokers to quit.  New York State has the money:  it raises well over $2 billion annually in tobacco revenues.

But the state has been unwilling to invest sufficient resources into its program.  Over the past 4 years, the state has cut in half its funding of state’s tobacco control program.

Last month an independent expert hired by the New York State Department of Health to evaluate its tobacco control program, issued his findings calling for increased funding from the current annual budget of $41 million to $85 million and then again to $127 million in the year after that – still a tiny fraction of what the state raises in tobacco taxes.

What should the state do with the additional money?  The report states, “Develop and fund interventions to address disparities in smoking rates, particularly for adults with low income, limited education, and mental illness.”

The toll tobacco takes on New York is devastating. More than 25,500 New Yorkers will die this year of smoking-related diseases and more than $8.1 billion will be spent treating smoking caused illnesses.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers should heed the need for help and boost its funding for New York’s tobacco control.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division. His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.