I grew up with two parents who smoked. As a child of the 80’s, no one knew about the dangers of smoking. The stench of our house or the family car never bothered me; it was just how things were. But when my great-uncle died of lung cancer, my mother threw all her cigarettes in the trash after 20 years of smoking. I’m not saying it was easy for her—or the rest of us—as she battled with the nicotine addiction, but she did it and she won.
North Carolina has spent more than a century as one of the country’s leading producers of tobacco. But our history does not excuse the fact that we continue to fail miserably at funding programs on prevention and cessation of smoking. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids ranks North Carolina 45th in the nation for spending on tobacco prevention.
Last year we spent $1.2 million on tobacco prevention instead of the $99 million the CDC recommended we spend. But before you leap to the conclusion that lawmakers are saving your tax dollars, stop. The money for tobacco prevention comes from the $4.6 billion dollars the state received in 1998 for distribution over the next 25 years as part of the Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco manufacturers.
You may wonder—as I did—if we still need to spend so much on tobacco prevention programs. Consider this: according to Tobacco-Free Kids, 8,300 of North Carolina’s kids (under age 18) become new daily smokers each year. Fifteen percent of NC High School students smoke and 20% of NC adults smoke. Every year, those smokers cost the North Carolina public and private sectors almost $4 billion dollars in health care costs. Let me repeat that: we spend $4 billion annually on the problems caused by smoking instead of simply investing more money in preventing people from smoking.
It’s time the state uses the smoking prevention money for its intended purpose. In the meantime, we as citizens have to do our part. There are still tobacco companies counting on us NOT to have conversations with our kids about the dangers of smoking.
I think of a quote from one of my favorite movies, “Thank You for Smoking.” The character Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhard, says about the jet-setting lives of tobacco executives: “If I can convince just one of these kids to pick up smoking, I’ve paid for my flight round-trip.” That quote makes me sick. As much as I like to think that such a selfish sentiment only exists in the movies, I know it exists in reality. These companies still make billions on ads in our country and increasingly others around the world.