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Blair Horner: The Nation is Losing Control of the Tobacco War

Tobacco kills more than 400,000 Americans every year and costs the country about $100 billion in health care bills.  Despite successes in curbing tobacco use over the past four decades, it still is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.  

Curbing tobacco use is still supposed to be a top priority of policymakers.  The 50 states collectively have the resources to do just that.  In the current budget year, the states will collect a record $25.7 billion in revenue from tobacco taxes and other revenues.  In New York State, that number is a staggering $2.5 billion in tobacco revenues this year.

According to the experts at the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), states should be spending about 10 cents for every dollar raised from tobacco revenues.

Yet, New York spends just 2% on proven programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit.  2 pennies out of every $1 for tobacco prevention is not enough.

Yet a national report released last week found that only two states – Alaska and North Dakota – currently fund tobacco prevention programs at the CDC-recommended level.  That report also found that New York State – once ranked fifth in the nation in funding antismoking efforts – is now ranked a distant 21st.  Over the past 4 years, New York has slashed its tobacco control efforts in half, from a high of $85 million to a bit more than $40 million today.

When these programs are cut, more kids start to smoke, fewer smokers quit, health care costs go up and, worst of all, more people die from tobacco use.

Tobacco prevention isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.  Tobacco prevention programs save lives AND money by reducing tobacco-related health care costs.

For example, a December 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that between 2000 and 2009, Washington state saved more than $5 in health care costs for every $1 spent on its tobacco prevention and cessation programs by reducing hospitalizations for heart disease, strokes, respiratory diseases and cancer caused by tobacco use.

And these savings are not only over the long haul: tobacco control can have immediate benefits.  For example, a 2012 George Washington University study found that when the Massachusetts Medicaid program covered a comprehensive cessation benefit, the state saw a 3-to-1 return on investment in only a year-and-a-half’s time.

Tobacco use costs the nation nearly $100 billion a year in health care bills.  Tobacco prevention programs can reduce these costs.  States are being penny-wise and pound-foolish when they shortchange these programs.

Virtually all smokers start as kids, and the tobacco industry continues to spend billions of dollars targeting them.  Tobacco companies spend about $8.5 billion every year marketing their deadly products – or nearly $1 million every hour.  Only through a comprehensive, integrated tobacco control program focused on public education and youth health advertising, can the state counter Big Tobacco’s advertising blitz.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been successes: Youth smoking has fallen by more than half since 1997.  But 19% of adults and about 18% of high school students still smoke, and another 1,000 kids become regular smokers each day.  

The states’ failure to use more of their tobacco money to fight the tobacco problem is especially troubling in light of recent national surveys indicating that smoking declines in the U.S. have slowed.  The nation’s progress against tobacco use – the number one cause of preventable death– is at risk unless states increase funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.  

Here’s hoping that Governor Cuomo will use his budget plan to propose steps in boost state support for 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. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.