More Smokers in Ohio

Despite rising taxes and continuing health warnings, Ohio’s adult smoking rate saw its biggest increase in more than a decade in 2010.

According to statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22.5 percent of adult Ohioans smoked in 2010, up from 20.3 percent in 2009. It was the largest jump in the state’s smoking rate since 1996, when it rose from 26.1 percent to 28.4 percent.

With the price of cigarettes rising in recent years thanks to state and federal tax increases, smoker Ryan Beardsley, 18, of Marietta said it surprises him that more people are smoking.

Beardsley said the rise could be related to “hard times around here, maybe.”

Indeed, some attribute the higher smoking rate to increased stress, especially over the economy, while others blame deep cuts to tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

Little Hocking resident Tom Burroughs, 59, said he was surprised to hear the number. Although he’s smoked for 35 years and has never been able to quit for long, he expected fewer people to be smoking, given cigarettes’ link to cancer and other health problems, he said.

But “some people like to eat a lot; some people like to smoke,” he said.

Marietta resident Matt Whitstine, 19, took up smoking two years ago.

“I had a lot of stress at home; I started smoking,” he said.

Whitstine said he did think about his health when he took up the habit but so far has not felt any ill effects.

“After a while, I just really didn’t care,” he said. “But when I do (feel the effects), I’m going to quit.”

A 2010 Surgeon General report warns there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco and inhaling tobacco smoke causes immediate damage to the body. Stephanie Davis, director of the Washington County Tobacco Prevention Program, said those effects may not be noticeable for some time.

Still, that knowledge isn’t always enough to make people quit.

“Tobacco use is a coping mechanism,” Davis said. “And when people have stress, they have to have a coping mechanism.”

And tobacco’s addictive nature makes it hard to stop.

“It takes, on average, six times or more for someone to quit,” Davis said.

The loss of funding for programs like the one Davis works for - which provides cessation classes and other resources - is a major reason for the increase, according to Shelly Kiser, director of advocacy for the American Lung Association of Ohio.

“It’s disturbing to see years of progress beginning to reverse because of a lack of investment in programs that saved lives and employed hundreds of Ohioans,” she said. “Now, thousands more Ohioans’ lives are at risk and the state will be paying even more to treat tobacco-related illnesses.”

While CDC statistics show the smoking rate has fluctuated over the last decade, Kiser said previous variations have been within the survey’s margin of error and this is the first time the jump has been statistically significant.

“You can see a gradual downward trend over time,” she said.

Kiser said the decrease in prevention and cessation programs is a more likely culprit than stress over the economy.

“Not all states went up,” she said. “If the economy was really driving people to smoke, you’d see it across the board.”

A portion of the money Ohio received from the settlement of a lawsuit against major tobacco companies over the effects of smoking had been dedicated to prevention and cessation programs. In 2008, that money was redirected to other uses, a move upheld by the state’s Supreme Court last year.

Since then, only minimal funding has been directed toward tobacco prevention and cessation and many programs have shut down, according to a release from the American Lung Association’s Investing in Tobacco Free Youth Coalition. Some, like Washington County’s, have continued to operate on grant funding.

There is no anti-tobacco funding in the proposed budget now being hashed out by the General Assembly, Kiser said. Meanwhile, tobacco companies spend $1.5 million a day on advertising in Ohio.

“They have free rein to market their products without any pushback,” she said.

According to the release, smoking costs Ohio an estimated $4.37 billion each year in terms of health care. About $1.4 billion of that cost is covered by Medicaid, about 40 percent of whose recipients smoke.

To restore prevention and cessation funding, the Lung Association has proposed increasing the state tax on smokeless tobacco products. Currently the state charges a $1.25-per-pack tax on cigarettes and a tax of 17 percent of the wholesale price on other tobacco products. To have the taxes be equal, the latter rate should be at about 55 percent, Kiser said.

“The legislature can generate funds to bring programs back and, once again, send our smoking rates into a decline,” she said.

Marietta resident Ryan Seevers, who does not smoke or use other forms of tobacco, said he doesn’t see much benefit in raising the tax on smokeless tobacco, even if it did lead to a decrease in tobacco use. The government would just spend the money saved on something else.

“It wouldn’t come back to us,” said Seevers, 34.

Marietta resident Dave Sarver, 75, said he doesn’t think the government should spend a great deal of money on prevention and cessation.

“That’s up to the individual,” he said.

Sarver said he quit smoking in the 1950s, when the Surgeon General first warned of possible health effects.

“That was enough warning for me,” he said.

By Evan Bevins
The Marietta Times

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