By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Weeks after the Department of Health and Human Services announced that teen smoking in North Carolina had reached a all-time low — 4.2 percent for middle schoolers and 15.5 percent for high school students — the prevention programs credited with this success are on the budget chopping block.
“The State Senate released a budget that will destroy all of this good work and put 15,400 more North Carolina kids at risk for becoming addicted adult smokers,” Pam Seamans, executive director of the N.C. Alliance for Health, said this week. “According to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, health care costs will also rise as a result of this budget proposal. Future healthcare expenditures in state are estimated to increase by $270 million over the next three to five years, with state Medicaid healthcare spending alone increasing by $19.6 million.”
In prior years, thanks to funding that the state receives from the tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), $17.3 million had been alloted for statewide tobacco prevention and cessation programs, including the nationally recognized TRU (Tobacco.Reality.Unfiltered) campaign. This year, the Governor proposed $10 million for the programs, the House budget calls for $5.4 million, and the Senate budget cuts funding completely.
“We understand that our state needs a smaller budget than in past years. We truly empathize with lawmakers who are charged with this very difficult duty to carve out the fat and make cuts that are least harmful to the people of North Carolina,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “But we believe this cut would not only lead to increased smoking and climbing healthcare costs, but also to a rising number of deaths due to smoking related illnesses.”
He commended the Legislature for enacting the smoking ban in restaurants and bars more than two years ago, and urged them to keep the momentum built up by proven smoking prevention programs.
According to N.C. DHHS, since 2003, smoking rates have fallen by 55 percent among middle school students (from 9.3 to 4.2 percent) and by 43 percent among those in high school (from 27.3 to 15.5 percent). But the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says those figures will change if tobacco prevention funding is slashed. They estimate at least a 2.8 percent increase in youth smoking rates, which will lead to an additional 5,500 premature deaths due to smoking.
“Sometimes we don’t see the true value of a prevention program in terms of lives rescued and dollars saved until we lose it. I’m afraid that will be the case here,” said Dr. Creech. “Tobacco use is still our number one cause of preventable death in the Tar Heel state killing more than 12,000 a year and costing us nearly $2.5 billion in healthcare. We know these prevention programs are working because the rates have decreased, and we know people are calling the help line to get assistance to quit smoking. It’s not something that I believe can be cut without dire consequences.”
In fact, more than 36,906 calls have come into the Quitline — 1-800-QUIT NOW — in 2012, giving North Carolina the largest call volume of any Quitline in North America so far this year.
Dr. Creech is far from alone in his support of recurring funding for tobacco use prevention. A February poll by Public Opinion Strategies showed 74 percent of North Carolina voters favor continuing to use tobacco settlement money to fund these programs. Support was strong across party lines, with 69 percent of Republicans in favor, 77 percent of Independents and 78 percent of Democrats. Smokers even supported the proposal at 67 percent.
In a June 11 press release, the Alliance for Health pointed out that the tobacco industry spends $396 million every year promoting its products in North Carolina and that investing $17.3 million to help counteract their message with the truth about tobacco’s dangers doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Seamans added that it is not taxpayer funds that have been used for prevention and cessation programs, but rather a small portion of the hundreds of millions the state receives from the tobacco settlement. This year’s payment is $141 million.
“These are industry dollars that have been designated to come to North Carolina, based on population and other calculations, and funds that are specifically intended to help states address the health and financial toll of tobacco use,” she told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. “… No one wants to see North Carolina kids starting to smoke or use tobacco products — which lead to life-long struggles of addiction, increased health care costs and even death.”
Dr. Creech said he is hopeful that legislators will take a second look at this issue before finalizing a budget.
“Even when feeling pressure from all sides to cut spending, I know lawmakers do not want to make decisions that, in the long run, may be penny wise but pound foolish,” he said. “Let us be in prayer for all our government leaders during this trying budget time.”