Smoking, kids and the New Year
By Phil Noble
The two most often made (and broken) New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight and to quit smoking. If you need any evidence of this, count how many ads you see on TV for weight loss and quit smoking products in all the football bowl games.
Now before we go too much further, it’s time for a full disclosure. I’m overweight and I occasionally have a smoke. That said, I’m on a plan to lose weight (I’m halfway to my goal) and I smoke about one cigar a month – though in my youth I was a pack a day guy. I’m getting there. (So much for my self-congratulatory disclaimer).
So, now let’s move on to a rundown on what’s happening with smoking in South Carolina and then a really simple, no cost idea that can have a huge impact on kids smoking.
We as a state and country are nowhere near as bad as we were years ago. In the 1960s about half of all adults smoked and that number is down to about 15 percent today nationally and 22 percent in South Carolina.
But it’s still terrible. Cigarettes are responsible for about one third of all cancer deaths in the US and it’s not just lung cancer. Smoking contributes substantially to cancer of the esophagus, larynx, stomach, pancreas, colon, liver and kidney as well. It’s all bad stuff.
After having the lowest cigarette tax in the country for many years, a few years back we in South Carolina passed a 57 cents a pack tax. Seven cents goes to the state general fund for non-smoking related spending and the other 50 cents funds about $5 million to the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) for anti-smoking efforts, $5 million to the Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina for research and $100 million to help fund the state’s Medicaid program.
Now this 57 cents a pack may sound like a lot, but in reality it’s pretty low as compared to other states. New York has the highest tax on cigarettes at $4.35 a pack and our 57 cents ranks us at 42nd.
We’ve all seen the creepy anti-smoking ad on TV that DHEC is airing, but they do much more. One of the services is the Tobacco Quitline that provides information and support to people who want to quit. Since it began in 2006, over 86,000 people have called for help including over 19,000 just last year. There has been a six fold increase in the number of calls to the state’s Quitline, including 4,000 last January alone – see New Year’s resolutions above.
In addition to information and encouragement, in the last two years alone, they have sent over 22,000 packages with all sorts of free nicotine patches, anti-smoking gum and lozenges, etc.
Clearly, these programs are working – but we need to do more, a lot more. The Lung Association says we in South Carolina should spend 10 times more. Their 2015 annual report gives us mostly failing grades for our state and local anti-smoking efforts.
One of the biggest problems is the level of smoking among kids. Ask any smoker when they started and most all will say it was when they were teenagers. In fact, four of five adult smokers say they were hooked before they were 21 years old.
As with adults, we’re making progress with kids, but not enough. Nationally, about 580 kids become regular smokers every day – and one in three will die as a result. In 2013, about 15 percent of high schoolers in South Carolina said they smoke, which was down from 23 percent just two years before; this is 15,548 fewer kids taking up smoking. One of the big reasons for the drop is the increased cost of cigarettes due to the tax increase.
But we can do more and here is a simple no-cost way to cut teen smoking even further – raise the legal smoking age to 21.
It’s not a new idea, and where it has been tried, it has worked.
In 2005, Needham, Mass., became the first city to adopt a local ordinance raising the legal age to 21 – and it cut youth smoking by half. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to raise the age to 21. Today, over 115 localities in nine states have followed suit; sadly, none are in South Carolina.
About the only objections to raising the age limit come from the tobacco companies and those they finance. As far back as 1986, a Philip Morris report said, “Raising the legal minimum age for cigarette purchaser to 21 could gut our key young adult market (17-20 year olds) …”
Yes, there are some who would say that if someone is old enough to serve in the armed forces, then they should be old enough to smoke. Perhaps, but as opposed to alcohol, there is no safe level of tobacco use.
Will South Carolina raise the smoking age to 21? No, not any time soon.
Should South Carolina raise the smoking age to 21? Yes, absolutely.
So, when you are sitting around over the holidays with your family watching the bowl games and one of those stop smoking ads comes on, look over at your kids and think about them.
And then think about all the tobacco funded politicians.
Whose side are you on?
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and President of the SC New Dmeocratss, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley to bring big change and real reform. firstname.lastname@example.org