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Smoking stats trigger alarm bells over budget cut

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Maureen Busalacchi
January 12, 2010

Last month, the state Department of Public Instruction issued a startling announcement that the percentage of teenagers who smoke dropped more than one-fifth the last two years.


This was shocking. It’s a development that will save taxpayers millions. It will alleviate the burdens on our overcrowded health care systems and the pressure on insurance premiums. It will greatly improve our collective health.


It also may not last. That would be a health and financial tragedy.


Here’s what’s happening:


The DPI’s “Teen Survey” of risky behaviors showed that only 17 percent of Wisconsin teens smoke. That’s down from 21 percent two years ago.


We in the health community know why this happened. A series of cigarette tax increases raised tobacco prices to more than $6.


We all know that the best way to keep kids from smoking is to make cigarettes expensive. We calculated that the last 75 cent tax increase proposed by Gov. Jim Doyle would keep 45,000 children from becoming lifetime smokers.


This trend shows that the tax did exactly what it was supposed to do. It shows Doyle was right to propose and sign the tax into law. It shows Wisconsin is on the right track.


But in what appears to be a backroom deal in the last budget, lawmakers also slashed funding for the state’s youth programs and adult cessation programs by two-thirds. We in the health community expected a cut. We didn’t expect lawmakers to decimate a highly successful, proven program.


This will be a costly mistake. Smoking rates started climbing in other states that dramatically cut their programs. The tax increase initially jolts smokers into walking away. Without the reinforcement of the program, smokers, including young people, eventually become accustomed to paying the price and start smoking again.


The cost of this mistake is real.


Wisconsin residents and businesses pay more than $2 billion annually in taxes and insurance premiums to cover smoking-related diseases. Wisconsin taxpayers pay $41.3 billion in Medicare and Medicaid to treat the poor and elderly who smoke and get sick from it.


It’s simply undeniable that it’s in our-long term collective health interest to keep children from smoking and encourage adults to quit. It’s also undeniable that it’s in our best financial interest to do so. The rate of return on investments in these programs is well established and huge.


Anyone who says otherwise is smoking something—or working for a tobacco company.


The tragedy is that after all these tax increases, our state’s smokers were in prime position to quit—and we pulled the rug out from our cessation programs.


The tragedy is that tobacco taxes now generate $740 million for Wisconsin, but funding for these programs—paid by smokers!—was slashed from over $15 million to $6 million.


The youth survey is excellent news, showing that efforts to reduce smoking are working. We must sustain that success—and build on it. We implore Doyle and the Legislature to revisit this highly counter-productive and shortsighted decision.


Maureen Busalacchi is the executive director of Smoke Free Wisconsin, a coalition of health care and health advocacy groups organized to help reduce the burden of tobacco on Wisconsin citizens and taxpayers. Phone (608) 268-2620; Web site www.smokefreewi.org.

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