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Cough up a little more; cough a little less

Smoking-prevention efforts are working, and we have the evidence to back it up.

The Washington state Department of Health’s 2004 Healthy Youth Survey, released last week, shows that youth smoking rates are steadily declining, and have dropped by about half since the program began in 2000. About 65,000 fewer youth are smoking; nearly 13,000 Washington kids will be spared an early death.

The youth-driven tobacco control program includes compliance checks, retailer education materials and classes. The funding agreement requires each county to check local businesses to make sure that they are not selling to minors. The Spokane Regional Health District works with volunteer high school kids to verify that tobacco retailers follow the law.

If the statewide compliance rate falls below 80 percent, Washington is in danger of losing funding for the program. Last year the compliance rates for Spokane County were at 90 percent. This year they rose to 97 percent. Only one vendor in 36 sold cigarettes to a minor. This is a great example of how successful this program has been in our community, where compliance rates are among the highest in the state.

However, the majority of the funding for this successful program is not permanent. Washington state now has an opportunity to change that. Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposed budget includes an 80-cent tobacco tax increase. It is a gradual tax that will start with a 20-cent increase this July and increase an additional 60 cents by July 2007. The majority of the money generated from this tax increase is currently slated to assist in funding education.

The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and American Lung Association believe the positive results reflected in the 2004 Healthy Youth Survey are a direct sign that the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program in Washington is working. Our voluntary organizations believe that 15 cents of the proposed 80-cent tobacco tax increase should go back into the prevention program.

Comprehensive tobacco control programs cost a fraction of the $1.8 billion spent every year in Washington on medical care related to smoking. Unlike a lot of social programs that cannot document concrete results, comprehensive tobacco control programs have proved effective at saving lives and money. States in every region of the country—California, Massachusetts, Mississippi and elsewhere—have discovered that comprehensive programs (particularly when paired with an increased tax level) are the best solution for reducing the number of kids smoking, getting adults to stop smoking and reducing the number of deaths and health-care costs attributed to cigarettes and tobacco use.

A comprehensive program must educate the public, provide deterrents to obtaining tobacco and assist people in quitting the addiction. The good news is that the Washington state Department of Health’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program is obviously working. Since the state began tracking in 1990, the rate of youth smoking has dropped to an all-time low. Washington continues to be ahead of the nation in achieving lower youth smoking rates.

However, the bad news is Washington takes in over $461 million in tobacco-generated revenue each year, and of that amount, only 5.9 percent of it is spent on tobacco prevention. The funding that was allocated for prevention and treatment as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement from the 1998 tobacco settlement lawsuit will run out in 2009. Allocating 15 cents of the proposed 80-cent tax increase will provide approximately $28 million to $30 million a year and ensure that the already successful program will continue.

Cigarettes kill far too many people in our state, and leave others with a lifetime of poor health —cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancer, high blood pressure, to name a few. Smoking takes money from people’s pockets and levies a high cost on our health-care system. Smokers require about $12,000 more in medical care over their lifetimes, so if we can get 1,000 fewer kids to smoke, that alone is $12 million saved.

The choice is between spending now on these tobacco control programs, or paying later. Investing a relatively small amount of money in the health of our children and all Washington residents for these comprehensive programs, or paying dearly in the years to come to treat the effects of tobacco.

We should honor the work that has already been done by the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, and help to ensure that it will continue to make a difference in the years to come. It will not only save money, but lives down the road.


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