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Blair Horner: New York Is Losing Control Of The War On Tobacco

Tobacco kills more than 400,000 Americans every year and costs the country about $100 billion in health care bills.  Tobacco-caused diseases account for nearly 1 of every 5 deaths annually.  These include 46,000 heart attack deaths and 3,400 lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke.  Despite successes in curbing tobacco use over the past four decades, it still is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

In New York, over 28,000 die from exposure to tobacco products.  Treating the diseases caused by tobacco use adds $10 billion in health costs to the state.

So New Yorkers should expect that Governor Cuomo and the state legislature’s top health priority would be to curb tobacco use.  The governor and the legislature have a blueprint on how to attack the tobacco menace: the experts at the federal government’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers each state a plan on how to reduce tobacco use.

And the state has the resources to follow the CDC’s plan:  New York collects well over $2 billion each year in tobacco revenues.

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

According to a national report released last week, New York State – once ranked fifth in the nation in funding antismoking efforts – is now ranked a distant 20th.  Over the past few years, New York has slashed its tobacco control efforts in half, from a high of $85 million to just under $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 get sick and 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.

Despite that evidence, New York has systematically been dismantling its tobacco control efforts.  Despite the billions of dollars in tobacco revenues, the recommendations of the CDC, and the moral obligation to the smokers themselves, New York has been cutting funding for anti-smoking programs – including those which help smokers (who pay the tobacco taxes) to quit the deadly addiction.

Perhaps coincidentally, while state lawmakers have been slashing its tobacco control effort, the tobacco lobby has been spending to influence governmental policymaking like never before.  Last year, Altria – formerly known as Philip Morris – was the leading lobbying spender in New York State.

In recent times, the state’s leaders have been more interested in listening to the pleas of the tobacco industry and its lobbying corps than doing the right thing for New Yorkers.

Hopefully, the upcoming budget will finally see improvements in tobacco control funding.  Governor Cuomo gets to take the first step:   his budget plan must include a boost in state support for tobacco control.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.


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

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