CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My first act of health policy advocacy took place almost a half-century ago. As a high school student, I was quite fortunate to be chosen to caddy for the great golfer Arnold Palmer in an exhibition match -- coincidentally, not long after the 1964 surgeon general's report on tobacco. I have many memories of that day, but the most enduring was my suggestion to Palmer late in the round that he should consider stopping smoking. I'll never know whether my comments were effective, but I like to think I made a difference, as history shows that he kicked the habit totally within a few months.
Since moving to West Virginia 34 years ago, I have become well-acquainted with the ravages of tobacco on our citizens. Despite a small decrease in overall smoking over the last few years, West Virginia continues to be a national leader in rates of tobacco use, leading to great burdens on our health-care system.
The West Virginia Division of Tobacco Prevention reports that an average of 3,770 of our adults age 35 and older die each year from diseases related to cigarette smoking -- 19 percent of all state deaths. Sadly, each West Virginia smoker who dies prematurely loses, on average, 14.6 years of life.
Not only is there a human toll, but the economic toll to our state is also extraordinary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the total annual smoking-related direct health care and lost productivity costs are $1.8 billion, equaling $4,600 per smoker or $9 per pack of cigarettes consumed.
These numbers may seem overwhelming, but the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (CTFK) recently published some projections that give us hope. The report stated that a $1 increase in the West Virginia cigarette tax would do many good things: Youth smoking would decrease by 15 percent and 21,100 Mountain State kids would no longer face a future of tobacco addiction. 18,600 current adult smokers would ultimately quit, leading to 11,800 West Virginia residents being saved from premature death.
Looking at the bottom line, CTFK estimated that long-term health care cost savings in West Virginia -- because of fewer smoking-caused cases of lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes, in addition to smoking-affected pregnancies and births -- would be $762 million. In this time of tight budgets, it is also projected that this added dollar-per-pack will immediately add $140 million annually to state revenues.
Inevitably, the tobacco industry will try once again to indoctrinate us with their version of the "truth." Yes, these are the same folks who tried to tell us for years that smoking and inhaling secondhand smoke weren't harmful to our health.