The Times West Virginian

March 14, 2014

West Virginia must do better in addressing use of tobacco

Times West Virginian

— Nationwide, one out of five adults would respond “yes” to the question of whether or not they smoked cigarettes.

According to a Gallup poll released this week, one out of every three West Virginians would respond “yes” to that question.

In fact, according to research collected by analysts through all of 2013, the state of West Virginia ranks as the state with the second highest in percentage of smokers — 29.9 percent, topped only by Kentucky’s 30.2 percent. Rounding out the top three is Mississippi, with 27 percent of an adult smoking population.

The worst part is that since 2008, the first year that Gallup started collecting information about smoking, the six states with the highest smoking population have not changed significantly, though the national percentage feel from 21.1 to 19.7.

We have got to do better.

When looking at the data collected, Gallup indicates that the 12.2 percent smoking population in the state of Utah, the lowest in the nation, largely has to do with the Mormon population of that state and the stigma associated with smoking for members of that religion.

The information also suggests that states with smoking bans in the workplace, bars and restaurants typically have smaller percentages of smokers. In fact, nine out of the 10 states with the lowest percentage of smokers have outright bans in all three environments.

There are no statewide bans in Kentucky, West Virginia and Mississippi. Any limitations are handled on a county-by-county basis by health departments in West Virginia.

The good news is that most smokers want to quit. In fact, according to a similar Gallup poll, an overwhelming majority of smokers, 74 percent, say they want to give up the habit for a number of reasons, with improved health being the leading incentive.

There’s no way to say whether statewide bans will decrease smoking among adults, but a multi-faceted program of limitations, taxes, cessation programs, quit lines and education are proven methods to not only reduce the number of adult smokers, but prevent the next generation from taking up the habit.

“The past 20 years saw an intense public health push to address tobacco use in the U.S., ranging from legislation around smoke-free zones to the development of pharmaceutical products to leveraging the Internet to drive cessation,” said Nathan Cobb M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University of Medicine and chief medical officer of MeYou Health.

“However the dramatic loss of state funding for tobacco control across the country could endanger these gains.”

We have to do better in West Virginia. We all know the health impacts of smoking — the longterm dangers of smoking, like lung cancer, pulmonary disease, heart disease. We also know how much of a budgetary impact those kinds of diseases have on Medicare.

Investment today will pay off in the future. What we spend on education and cessation in the short term will alleviate the exponential drag on the state’s budget in the future.

But it’s about more than the bottom line, of course. It’s about the fact that one in three West Virginians are addicted to tobacco and are engaging in a very dangerous behavior with very dangerous consequences. And we’ve got to do better.