By now, neither the personal health risks nor the enormous public health consequences of smoking are unfamiliar to anyone.
For years, we have known that smoking and tobacco use are linked to cancer, heart disease, asthma, emphysema and other maladies. We also know that even second-hand exposure to smoke can have deadly consequences. Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of people die annually as a result of tobacco use.
Rhode Island has taken significant steps to combat tobacco use in recent years, including the 2005 adoption of a ban on indoor smoking in public places. However, much more work remains.
A recent report from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, or ACS CAN, found that Rhode Island is falling short in terms of its funding for tobacco-use prevention and cessation programming.
The report notes that Rhode Island spends $390,926 each year on prevention and cessation programs – a small fraction of what is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a pittance compared to the roughly $150 million the state receives annually from tobacco taxes.
The ACS CAN report indicates that other states, including California, Massachusetts and Washington, have seen their respective investments in tobacco control programs pay off through significant health care savings.
In addition to calling for additional spending to support comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation programming, ACS CAN is pushing for the age at which people can legally purchase tobacco products to be increased from 18 to 21.
Doing so, the report asserts, would reduce the smoking rate by 12 percent nationally and help save many thousands of lives. The rise of electronic cigarettes and the increasingly widespread use of vaping devices by teens make the issue even more pressing.
Some state lawmakers have previously introduced legislation seeking to increase Rhode Island’s smoking age, although their efforts have to date been unsuccessful. This is another area in which our state finds itself lagging regionally and nationally.
As legislators look ahead to the next session, we hope they will heed the call from ACS CAN for more action to combat the use of tobacco products in the Ocean State.
We understand the fiscal constraints faced in developing each year’s budget – and know that increases on tobacco taxes have often been used to help bridge the gap between revenues and expenditures. But given the vital importance of this issue, we urge our leaders to make it a priority in the next session.
This goes beyond politics and price tags. Helping people quit tobacco and stopping young people from ever starting should both be at, or near, the top of our to-do list in Rhode Island.