Commentary | More Needed for Tobacco Education

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THE COURIER-JOURNAL | JANIE HEATH AND ELLEN HAHN | JULY 13, 2015

The health of Kentucky continues to make headline news with smoking prevalence rates among the highest in the United States.

It’s a critical issue for Kentucky and the country. Smoking remains the No. 1 preventable cause of early death and disease and, at the same time, our Commonwealth continues to underfund tobacco prevention and treatment efforts, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

Moreover, a recent study revealed that the tobacco companies have deliberately blocked public health policy in tobacco-growing states since the 1960s. Against that backdrop, it should be no surprise that we haven’t made more progress in thwarting the state’s No. 1 killer over the past 50 years.

The costs for Kentucky — in health care expenses and in the most important measure of human life and health — are staggering. There have been 500,000 premature deaths in Kentucky over the past 50 years — a sobering statistic that represents decades of tears, lost income, medical bills, pain, and needless suffering.

Specifically, the CDC estimates that Kentucky needs at least $56 million per year to adequately address our No. 1 killer. Yet, the state spent $2.5 million in fiscal year 2015 for tobacco prevention and cessation efforts that are known to be effective. This amount is a mere 4.4% of what is actually needed to tackle the scourge of tobacco use in our state.

The $2.5 million we spend on tobacco control compares to $271 million per year that the tobacco industry spends every year in Kentucky to market cigarettes. In other words, for every $1 spent on tobacco control in Kentucky per year, the tobacco industry spends $109 marketing tobacco products.

The disparity is striking. The costs are too high.

Today, our adult smoking rate is 40 percent higher than the national average.

Today, Kentucky taxpayers spend $1.9 billion treating sick smokers annually and an additional $128.4 million taking care of nonsmokers sick from secondhand smoke.

Each and every Kentucky household spends about $584 per year in federal and state taxes to pay for this.

Most smokers die between 35 and 69 years, in the prime of their lives. Kentucky will continue to needlessly lose entire generations to a chronic, addictive disease that is 100 percent preventable

Adequately investing in effective tobacco control measures is an enormous missed opportunity and a death sentence for 10,000 fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers every year.

We know what to do to change the course of this deadly history.

The facts are that states that invest in effective, sustained tobacco-control programs have lower smoking rates. As tobacco-control spending goes up, smoking goes down. So does disability, disease, and death.

Examples of remarkable success stories are California and Florida. As a result of California’s well-funded tobacco-control program, new cases of lung cancer declined significantly compared with rates in other parts of the country.

In Florida, the youth smoking rate dropped dramatically to 7.5 percent in large part due to their well-funded tobacco-control program. The recipe is plain, simple, and easy to follow.

Funding of a comprehensive, evidence-based tobacco control program in addition to a significant increase in the tobacco tax and a statewide smoke-free law — that recipe will help us begin to treat and impact chronic disease and addiction that results directly from tobacco use.

It’s time to invest upfront in comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation. The next generation of Kentuckians is depending on us.

Janie Heath is dean and Warwick Professor of Nursing at UK College of Nursing. Ellen J. Hahn is professor and director, Tobacco Policy Research Program.

Read the article online.