In a report issued this month, the American Lung Association gave West Virginia mostly F grades for its efforts to reduce tobacco use and tobacco-related disease. At first glance, it appears the Mountain State is falling behind other states in curbing the use of a dangerous product.
To put that in context, Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia also received mostly F’s. The Lung Association is not impressed with the states’ ongoing efforts to curb tobacco use and tobacco-related disease. That’s not unexpected.
Tobacco does have its beneficial uses. As one example, it’s a folk remedy for deworming livestock and household pets. For human use, though, it’s mainly smoking and chewing, neither of which can be seen as beneficial.
Smoking is one of those things that we know is bad but people do it anyway, like opioid use, driving while intoxicating and eating too much junk food.
Tobacco once was an important part of the local economy. Farmers grew as much tobacco as the federal government’s price support program would allow, and they used their tobacco money to get through the winter or pay for a child’s education.
Those days are gone, at least in this region. Despite warning labels on cigarette packaging and despite people’s firsthand experience with cancer, emphysema and other tobacco-related diseases, tobacco use remains ingrained in our culture.
Actually, the biggest tobacco addict in the entire state of West Virginia may be state of West Virginia itself. In the first six months of the current fiscal year, the state received about $85.6 million in revenue from its tobacco products tax. The good news is that it was only 92 percent of the amount budgeted for the first six months. Either someone in Charleston overestimated how much the tax would generate or underestimated how many people are weaning themselves from tobacco.
One step recommended by the American Lung Association is increasing the tax on tobacco products. Several studies have shown that every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4% among adults and about 7% among youth. Tax increases are always on the table, but lawmakers are reluctant to take them to the level where they are punitive.
Another step would be to increase funding for tobacco prevention and programs geared at helping people quit smoking. After depleting the fund a few years ago during tight budget times, the Legislature allocated $500,000 for tobacco prevention and cessation last year.
Has West Virginia done enough to discourage tobacco use? Maybe. Maybe not. Could it do more? Yes. Would that take more commitment from the Legislature and the governor than has been shown to date? Yes.
In some ways, tobacco use is similar to the opioid epidemic. The differences are that tobacco use is legal, and its destructive effects take decades to be felt rather than minutes.
Too many families here in the Tri-State and in West Virginia have lost someone to a tobacco-related disease, yet people continue to smoke and chew and dip and whatever else they do to get their nicotine fix.
We’ve made some progress. Smoke-free schools, workplaces, hotel rooms, restaurants and other places show that nonsmokers no longer are willing to tolerate other people’s tobacco habits directly.
We may never be free of the scourge of tobacco-related illness, but we can do our best to bring it down to the minimum level, whatever that may be. The state of West Virginia — indeed, all states — must keep hammering away at this slow-motion epidemic despite the pushback they get.