Tobacco is the only legal product in this country that, when used as intended, will kill half the people who use it. It costs the U.S. nearly half a million deaths a year and a staggering $300 billion annually in health care costs and lost productivity. Those are big numbers and they are not just statistics: They are the people we love, the people we know and the people we work with.
This is clearly a crisis. We must do all we can to stop the tobacco epidemic in this country. The good news is we know how to turn back the statistics.
Research shows that states can tackle tobacco use through a comprehensive approach that includes regular and significant increases in the price of all tobacco products through excise taxes, comprehensive smoke-free laws at the local and state levels that protect everyone’s right to breathe smoke-free air, and fully funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs that drive people to quit and provide access to counseling and medication.
Like a three-legged stool, each component works together, and all three are necessary to reduce tobacco use. Unfortunately, Oklahoma lags on all three. The state tobacco tax is $1.03, well below the national average; there is no law banning smoking in restaurants, bars and all other workplaces; and Oklahoma only spends 58 percent of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends as effective for tobacco control.
Tobacco companies also know what works in reducing their customer base — which is why their agenda is to distract the public from proven interventions and instead pave the way for new products and tactics to keep people addicted. Oklahoma has been ground zero for the tobacco industry’s smoke and mirrors campaign. In the state Capitol, the industry has shifted focus to new, untested products such as smokeless snus, dissolvables and electronic cigarettes. Tobacco companies want to exempt these products from existing tobacco definitions, smoke-free policies and tobacco taxes, using unverified claims they are less harmful.
Industry-supported bills now in the Legislature under the guise of “youth access” would carve out protections for devices like e-cigarettes that would exempt them from tobacco taxes and not require retailers to have a license to sell the products, making enforcement next to impossible. Retailers also would not be subject to the same penalties that they currently face for selling tobacco products to minors.
Science has told us what works: smoke-free laws, tobacco taxes and properly funded tobacco control efforts. Oklahoma must refocus attention on these proven strategies to reduce tobacco use and lower health care costs. Oklahomans can’t let the tobacco industry continue to manipulate their health and their children’s futures with untried and potentially harmful tobacco interventions. It’s time for the Legislature to see through the industry’s smokescreen and turn attention back to what we know will save lives.
Lichtenfeld is deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.