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Blair Horner: The Budget Battle Over Tobacco Comes to a Head

Smoking is New York’s number one cause of cancer deaths.  Yet in recent years, the state has taken its foot off the gas and slashed its investment in combating tobacco in half.  That’s a mistake we’re starting to pay for.

Consider this: in 2009 smoking caused the cancer deaths of over 9,000 New Yorkers, 26 per day.  That staggering number is more than one quarter of all cancer deaths in New York State.  This is a public health catastrophe and reducing the carnage caused by smoking should be a top priority for Albany.

For years it was: smoking was banned in indoor settings, including public spaces, workplaces and even bars; the state enacted the highest cigarette tax in the nation; and, until recently, New York funded one of the nation’s most active tobacco education and treatment programs.  These effective policies helped contribute to New York’s smoking rate plummeting.  But that was the past.

Now, despite raising well over $2 billion in tobacco revenues, New York has systematically slashed its investment in its tobacco control efforts.  Since 2007, the state has cut this program’s funding by a whopping 50 percent.  As a result, New York State – once the fifth most effective tobacco control program in the nation – has slipped to 21st.  New York now spends only one-sixth the amount recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And worse still, the decline in the state’s smoking rate has slowed to a crawl.

One of the most important elements of the state’s tobacco control program is to keep kids from smoking.  Another is its efforts to help smokers to quit. Here is one key way that cuts have contributed to the stall in New York’s smoking rate decline.

The state’s “Quitline” offers New York smokers an opportunity to get counseling and treatment to help them to quit.  The program offers smokers telephone coaching in English and Spanish. It provides a starter kit of free nicotine replacement medications for eligible smokers.  It also gives, among other services, coaching and nicotine replacement therapy coverage for at least two quit smoking attempts per year.  (For more information: www.nysmokefree.com, or 1-866-NY-QUITS, 1-866-697-8487.)

But smokers can only benefit from the Quitline if they know of its existence and, regretfully, the biggest reduction in funding for the tobacco control program is its media budget. When you silence the public outreach for the program you also silence the state’s educational efforts directed at children. The result has been a dramatic decline in calls to the Quitline.

For example, in the past three years, Albany, Columbia, Greene, and Schenectady counties have seen a drop off of over 50% in the number of smokers calling the Quitline.

Fewer callers seeking help from the Quitline means fewer smokers quitting.  It also means more illnesses resulting from smoking and more health care costs for us all.

New York only needs to use a fraction of the $2 billion it raises from smokers to significantly boost support for its tobacco control efforts.  Given that the state generated billions out of the wallets of New York smokers, it seems fair that the money should be returned into programs that help smokers quit.

Yet the current budget offered by Governor Cuomo further jeopardizes the funding for this lifesaving program.  The governor’s budget consolidates 89 public health programs into six funding categories – and then cuts the funding by 10 percent.  The state’s tobacco control program is in one of these categories.

We know that over one quarter of all cancer deaths are tobacco related.  And we know that public education and cessation programs help people quit.  Now is the time to boost tobacco control efforts, not weaken them.  Doing so would save the state money and save the lives of New Yorkers.

It’s not too late for concerned members of the public to speak out against the cuts to tobacco control.  The state’s final budget is not scheduled to be approved until March 21.  We must let legislators know that enough is enough.  Don’t take your foot off the gas anymore, coasting won’t prevent cancer.

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.

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