Ky. barns are supporting tobacco cessation; will the state legislature?

Published 11:26 am Monday, January 15, 2018


Guest columnist

Who would have guessed years ago, when many of us were growing up on tobacco farms, that tobacco barns would someday bear the message, “Quit Now Kentucky?”

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Yes, indeed, the old “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco” signs are almost gone, and a few barns in Kentucky are now spreading a new message, which includes a Kentucky smoking cessation help line. The new barn signs are funded through a federal grant Kentucky received to address the high financial and human costs of tobacco use.  

Our state has the highest rate of deaths in the United States attributed to smoking. The health insurance that we all pay for, through taxes and premiums, is more costly because of tobacco use in our state.  Annual health care costs in Kentucky directly related to smoking are estimated at 1.92 billion dollars.  Yes, that’s billion, not million. Annual state Medicaid costs attributed to smoking currently stand at 589.8 million. That calculates to the state and federal tax burden directly related to smoking per Kentucky household at $1,122.  

In a state struggling to maintain a workforce to fill current and future jobs, tobacco use is a Kentucky workforce development issue as well.  About 16.9 percent of our Kentucky high school students smoke. That percentage is higher if smokeless tobacco use and vaping is added in.

If the youth under 18 alive today who are currently smoking continue to smoke, it is estimated that 119,000 will die prematurely.  We won’t have them to work and pay taxes through a normal lifespan.  An additional and ongoing workforce issue is cost of work time lost because of smoking — currently estimated at $2.79 billion annually.

In short, Kentucky simply can’t afford the cost of smoking and other tobacco use any longer. We have a state budget that needs help quickly. We have legislators scrambling to find funding for the struggling state pension plans. We now have solid research that supports the positive benefits of strong smoke-free laws in communities. And, we have big tobacco companies court-ordered in November 2017 to run television and newspaper ads about the real costs of tobacco because they lied to us for so many years.  

As the Kentucky 2018 Legislature gets rolling in Frankfort, we will hear about smoking legislation that could help to turn this state around. One of the biggest newsmakers will probably be a proposal to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by a minimum of $1 per pack. Forty-two states have higher taxes on cigarettes than Kentucky.

Projected annual revenue from raising the tax by $1 is around $266 million. That could go a long way toward paying for some other much needed services in our budget. It could also help to influence folks to either not start smoking, or to quit. Kentucky Voice for Health estimates that 23,200 kids would never start smoking with the added tax.  

Kentucky is facing tremendous problems today with the opioid crisis and its related costs. The similarities of this crisis to where we have been with tobacco use are remarkable.  And, actually, tobacco addiction and opioid addiction are not just parallel problems — they may be more interrelated than we ever knew. With recent neuroscience findings on the effects of any substance use on developing brains, concerns are increasing that early tobacco use serves as a “gateway drug” experience. Large numbers of persons who are currently addicted to opioids and other substances report using tobacco early in life before other substances.

As we look to prevent an increase in opioid addiction in the future, it only makes sense to address early use of other substances like tobacco.  

Our Kentucky elected officials can make some critical decisions that will have a positive impact on all of us — whether we smoke or not.

Let’s hope that citizens’ best interests and the best interests of future generations will be the baseline of decisions made in Frankfort. Let’s hope that the saved costs of tobacco use will be seen as one strategy to address our budget crisis.

Actions must be taken based on the best information we have now. It takes courage to make these kinds of changes.  Let’s follow the lead of some former tobacco farmers who have chosen to make tobacco barns a symbol of health and change.

Kathy L. Miles is coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Policy Inc.