Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Kickin the habit

A government nanny may be meddlesome, but it can make life better for all of us, as a state health survey about smoking demonstrates. Arkansas began a campaign to reduce smoking on several fronts in 2000 ó a big advertising campaign, increasingly tough laws banning smoking from public places and marginally higher cigarette taxes ó and the evidence keeps piling up that it works.

A survey called the Arkansas Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System found that the share of adults in Arkansas who smoke fell from 26.3 percent to 22.4 percent between 2002 and last year. The changes were more dramatic for youngsters. The share of smokers in Arkansas high schools fell from 34.7 percent in 2001 to 20.7 percent last year.

All of those who kicked the habit or refused to start it will live healthier and more productive lives. Itís good for everyone else, too. Medical costs that are directly caused by smoking run to more than $800 million a year in Arkansas. A survey of Arkansas hospitals by the state Health Department showed that fewer and fewer people are being treated in hospitals for heart disease and strokes, which are common products of smoking.

When people lay off cigarettes, it eventually levels off health-care spending, including charitable care, and that translates into lower health-care premiums for everyone. Donít look for a slice in your premiums, but the increases will be smaller.

Arkansas still has a higher prevalence of smokers than the nation as a whole, but the difference now is small.

Arkansas was one of the few states that channeled most of their big annual settlement with tobacco companies into smoking-prevention and other health programs in 2000. Voters approved an initiated act earmarking the money for anti-smoking and health programs after the legislature caviled. The state this year is spending nearly $16 million on smoking-cessation programs.

The legislature got the message, too. Since 2000, it has passed laws banning smoking in public places and graduating the excise tax on cigarettes, which is now up to 59 cents a pack. By raising the retail price of a pack, cigarette taxes are a particularly good way to forestall smoking by children.

That is where Arkansas is far behind most other states. The national average of the tax is nearly twice the Arkansas tax.

The legislature may fix that in January. State Rep. Gene Shelby, D-Hot Springs, is considering introducing a bill to raise the tax by 50 cents a pack to pay for a statewide trauma system, which is badly needed. The extra tax would curtail smoking so much that the tax might produce only marginally more revenue for the state than the current levy, but that would be all right. Urge your favorite lawmaker to vote for it.

While youíre at it, page your Washington lawmakers ó Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Representatives Vic Snyder and Marion Berry ó and tell them to support legislation to authorize the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes that hook young blacks.

That way, the FDA (under a new and sympathetic president) can crack down on tobacco marketing to children, perhaps saving many of those 4,000 children a day who take their first puff.