In the 55 years since the Surgeon General warned that smoking was a clear health hazard, rates of tobacco use in the United States have fallen precipitously, adding years to thousands of lives and saving millions in health care dollars. But even as it’s become common knowledge that smoking can kill, thousands of U.S. adults still smoke – 14 percent of them, to be precise.

More disturbing are the 7.6 percent of high school students who smoke. Sure, some of them will shake off the habit as they age, but others will almost certainly become hopelessly addicted, and spend their later years struggling with emphysema, heart disease or cancer. The country as a whole – and Pennsylvania in particular – needs to do more stop these young people from smoking in the first place.

That fact was underscored last week thanks to a report released under the auspices of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and other organizations. It found that Pennsylvania ranks 28th of the 50 states in funding programs that prevent young people from smoking, and helping adult smokers quit. The report was released to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1998 settlement that required cigarette manufacturers to pay $206 billion to states to compensate for tobacco-related health care costs. Cigarette makers also had to submit to restrictions in how they marketed and advertised their products.

While Pennsylvania collects more than $1 billion annually from the settlement, it spends a little less than 1 percent of that money on tobacco prevention programs, the report found. The $15 million that the commonwealth spends on tobacco cessation and prevention programs is no match for the $443 million that tobacco companies put forth to market their wares in the state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends lawmakers earmark $140 million annually to combat tobacco use. That’s almost 10 times more than is currently being spent. But a big boost in spending on prevention and cessation programs could lead to bigger dividends down the road. According to the report, 22,000 Pennsylvanians die every year because of tobacco, and $6 billion in health care costs the state picks up can be linked to smoking.

Matthew L. Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, explained that “Pennsylvania is putting kids’ health at risk and burdening taxpayers with higher tobacco-related health care costs by continuing to shortchange tobacco prevention programs.”

Pennsylvania can take some comfort from the fact that it is not alone in underfunding programs that help reduce tobacco use. No state meets the recommended level of funding, and only California and Alaska pass the 70 percent threshold.

Even though the days when you could freely smoke in workplaces, restaurants and anywhere else are thankfully long in the past, tobacco remains the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States. Progress has been made – there is no doubt about that – but we still have much more work to do.

The above editorial was published Dec. 23 by the Washington Observer-Reporter.

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