It’s rare that in the face of an extremely difficult problem, that a simple, win-win solution presents itself, but that is happening right now in Louisiana, which is facing both an astronomical health and fiscal crisis.
And it all centers on tobacco. The deadliest, not to mention one of the most common cancers in the state (as well as the country and the world), is lung cancer. That fact should not be news to anyone. But maybe people haven’t totally understood that tobacco has now also been proven to cause a whole host of other cancers, including: colon, liver, kidney, bladder, stomach, pancreatic, cervical and rectal cancers, as well as acute myeloid leukemia.
That’s quite a list. Throw in the fact that tobacco is the leading cause of cardiovascular disease, which is the top cause of death and disease everywhere, and even somebody who doesn’t have a good grip on health statistics or fiscal matters, can understand that tobacco kills and costs us a lot of money in the process.
Show Us The Money
Tobacco-related disease in Louisiana costs the state $1.89 billion a year in health care costs, which is approximately $2,400 in taxes for every Louisiana family. And that doesn’t even count costs such as the higher health insurance premiums everyone pays because of tobacco. One of the reasons why is Louisiana has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country. Not surprisingly, it turns out when it’s cheap to smoke, more people do it. This is especially true of kids, ensuring a never-ending supply of customers for Big Tobacco, as well as a never-ending and expensive health crisis for the state.
Health experts say that raising the price $1.25 on cigarettes and equalizing the tax rate on other tobacco products will stop 23,000 kids under 18 from starting to smoke (kids are particularly price-sensitive), as well as save 16,000 Louisiana adults from a premature death. And the health savings in the future would amount to millions.
That makes so much sense on the face of it, it would seem it would be a “done deal.” And now the state is catapulting down a $1.6 billion budget hole, which, thanks to the way the state constitution is written, means dire consequences for the health and education of Louisiana citizens, (including possible loss of TOPS college tuition funds and even the loss of the LSU football program). It is clear that something must be done and done fast.
That’s why everyone from health experts to fiscal conservatives are touting a tobacco tax increase. It’s a common sense, fiscally responsible and life-saving solution. It also holds people accountable for their behavior, which is probably why it appeals to people on both sides of the political aisle and why a vast majority of Louisiana voters favor such a tax.
The fact that Louisiana is further recognizing the evils of tobacco is evidenced in the whopping success of the smoke-free ordinance in New Orleans, which is soon celebrating its year anniversary. Only six months after its enactment, the ordinance has an 80 percent approval rating – up from the 66 percent who favored it before it took place. The dire predictions of lost business and revenue in bars and casinos proved to be unfounded.
East Baton Rouge is now considering going smoke-free too, and initial reaction has been more than enthusiastic, with initial polling showing that 70 percent of its voters favor smoke-free policies in all places, including bars and casinos.
It would seem people aren’t buying the “freedom” argument that tobacco users (a minority of the population) and some business owners like to make, as most people don’t usually think of ingesting poisons and other carcinogenics as “being free.” As one public health spokesperson put it, “It’s like playing in traffic. Sure, you’re free to do it, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
The freedom argument is further weakened by the fact that non-smokers can get cancer from secondhand smoke, which takes away their choice or right to breathe non-poisonous air. Just as there are laws and regulations protecting people from other known toxins, people are now recognizing that they need protection from tobacco - history and Big Tobacco money notwithstanding.
In the end, a smoker’s freedom is very expensive in death, disease and costs for everyone else. Louisiana is now recognizing that fact and doing something about it.
For more information about smoking and how to quit, go to the Louisiana Cancer Prevention and Control Programs website at http://louisianacancer.org/smoking/.
The CDC-funded Louisiana Cancer Prevention and Control Programs (LCP) are housed at the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Public Health.