Smoking is big business, but it also annually results in big, costly and painful losses for millions of Americans. Each year, more than 4,300 West Virginians die from tobacco-related illnesses due to the fact that 26% of our population uses tobacco products.
In the meantime, the state legislature isn’t doing what it's supposed to do regarding smoking prevention education.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends West Virginia spend $27 million each year to ensure anti-smoking education programs are effective.
In 2017, West Virginia lawmakers cut the entirety of the state’s budget that was allocated to fight smoking, and before this, those funds were a minuscule $3 million — a ninth of the CDC recommendation.
At the same time, the funding was being whacked in Charleston in 2009, the state shelled out more than $1 billion in medical costs associated with smoking. Keep in mind, these medical bills could have been paid for by funds due to the state for taking part in the 1998 Tobacco Settlement Agreement, for which the state received $61.2 million in 2018.
In that landmark case, West Virginia agreed to what was believed to be a $1.8 billion settlement. However, in 2007, the state sold its rights to those payments to bondholders for $911 million. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, more than $800 million of that bond sale was used to fill a cash hole in the critically-underfunded Teachers Retirement System.
Exacerbating the problem was the fact that sales tax revenues on tobacco products were a measly $109.6 million.
In fiscal year 2019, West Virginia is choosing to rely solely on $1.8 million in federal funds to execute a successful anti-tobacco education program statewide. We don’t see this as a program that will successfully reach many, if any, goals.
In 2016, West Virginia increased its tobacco tax from 55 cents a pack to $1.20 a pack, while the national average is $1.73 a pack, according to the TruthInitiative, the nonprofit that tracks anti-tobacco initiatives around the U.S.
So, where is the money? Where is the action?
Multiple states have banned smoking in private workplaces, restaurants, bars, casinos and gaming establishments, retail stores and recreational and cultural facilities, but not here in West Virginia.
These bans, while opposed by many civil liberty groups, actually result in more people considering, if not, actually quitting smoking.
Research shows that smoking and tobacco-related product use makes it difficult for a woman to conceive, increases the rate of still and premature births, pre-birth defects, low birth weight babies and infant deaths.
Perhaps a properly-funded state tobacco education program could help decrease these events from being a West Virginia reality.
West Virginians deserve answers and action from our lawmakers that is going to give us all peace of mind knowing they’ve done something to help improve the quality of life for everyone.
Charleston needs to properly fund the tobacco education initiative, and work to lower healthcare expenses related to tobacco products.
Maybe, then we can all breath easy.