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Strapped states cut smoking-prevention funds

/ Source: The Associated Press

After 30 years smoking Marlboros, 53-year-old hospital maintenance man Dave Hanna was ready to quit.

Thanks to the Vermont Quit Network, he didn't have to do it alone: Hanna got one-on-one counseling, nicotine therapy patches and support materials from a state-funded tobacco-cessation coordinator. He's now two months smoke-free.

"If I had to go out and pay the $50 for the Nicoderm, I wouldn't do it," he said.

But smokers who want to kick the habit may soon be on their own.

Cash-strapped state governments are slashing funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs in a move anti-tobacco groups say could backfire, costing taxpayers later for treatment of tobacco-related illnesses among people who might've quit.

"We understand the economic times and the pressure that budget makers are under, but right now, this is a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach," said Peter Fisher, vice president of state issues for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In Vermont, a recently adopted state budget reduced funding for anti-tobacco efforts by $1.9 million from the previous year, which critics say will force cutbacks in youth smoking-prevention activities and at hospitals that offer in-person smoking-cessation counseling and nicotine-replacement therapy.

Other states have made similar cuts, or are contemplating them:

  • In Washington state, lawmakers cut $22 million from tobacco prevention programs for the next two years, which will reduce paid public service announcements on radio and TV and force curtailment of a quit line.
  • In Maryland, the state slashed funding for tobacco control in the fiscal year beginning July 1 from $16.7 million last year to $4.6 million.
  • In Colorado, where lawmakers dipped into a cash reserve from the 1998 tobacco industry settlement and imposed a sales tax on cigarettes to help balance the state budget, funding for tobacco education and cessation programs was cut by $6 million.

"You're seeing disproportionate cuts to tobacco prevention and cessation programs, and it's a foolish strategy," said Thomas Carr, manager for national policy for the American Lung Association. "It may solve the budget deficit now, but it increases your costs in the long run, because of the costs tobacco use imposes on state economies in health care costs and lost productivity."

In Vermont, for example, the state estimates that it saves up to $5 million annually in Medicaid expenses as an indirect result of its quit-smoking initiatives.

Smokers wanting to quit are calling state-run hotlines in record numbers these days, in part because of skyrocketing taxes on cigarettes, according to Fisher. On April 1, the federal tax on cigarettes jumped to $1.00 per pack, and some states are jacking up their taxes on tobacco, as well.

That's what prompted Hanna to quit — the price.

"It had nothing to do with health reasons," he said. "It's $7 a pack!"

The program he's in is run out of Central Vermont Medical Center, where coordinator Gigi Magee says she sees the end result of smoking on a regular basis.

"I understand with the budget and the money, but tobacco is one of the leading causes of death. A lot of people in our ICU, it's emphysema, lung disease, COPD. Those things could be avoided if people weren't using tobacco," Magee said.

For their part, states say the cutbacks were unavoidable in a budget year when plunging state revenues and rising demands for services made for an unprecedented crunch.

"We didn't have a lot of good choices," said Simon Powell, principal analyst for Maryland's Department of Legislative Services.