NewsOK: Oklahoma City News, Sports, Weather & Entertainment

Oklahoma ranks high on efforts to fight tobacco

Oklahoma City — Oklahoma is spending more to combat tobacco use than most states — but it still isn't close to what experts think is needed.

Oklahoma ranks seventh on spending to curb tobacco use, with $19 million going to anti-smoking programs in the current fiscal year, according a report from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. That's only about 45 percent of the $42.3 million the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the states put into encouraging current tobacco users to quit and discouraging youth from starting to smoke, though.

Julie Bisbee, spokeswoman for the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, said the report doesn't fully capture Oklahoma's anti-tobacco efforts, because it doesn't include about $3.8 million from the Oklahoma State Department of Health and county governments. The report noted that Oklahoma's figures should be considered preliminary, because the state's budget still isn't finalized.

If that funding were included, Oklahoma would be tied for third place with North Dakota, which spent about 54 percent of what the CDC recommended on tobacco control.

The state is projected to receive about $389.5 million this budget year from cigarette taxes and the tobacco master settlement agreement, and only about 5 percent of that money will go to programs that discourage smoking.

Major tobacco companies reached an agreement with most of the states in the late 1990s to make annual payments to compensate states for health costs related to smoking.

Still, Oklahoma is spending more per capita on tobacco control than many states, and that's partly because residents voted in 2000 to place 75 percent of proceeds from the settlement agreement into the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust. Other states have tended to raid the funding in bad budget years to pay for expenses not related to tobacco.

About 20 percent of adults and 15 percent of high school students in Oklahoma smoke, according to the CDC. Both rates are higher than the national average, though they have gone down in recent years.

The report estimated about 7,500 deaths in Oklahoma are linked to smoking each year, and that smoking increases health costs in the state by $1.62 billion annually. The estimate doesn't include illnesses related to secondhand smoke, such as childhood asthma or premature births to mothers who smoke. It also doesn't take into account cancers related to other forms of tobacco.

If Oklahoma wants to decrease its smoking rates, spending more on prevention isn't the only way it needs to attack the problem, said Gary Raskob, dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health and chair of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department board. The most important thing the state could do is make cigarettes more expensive, he said.

Oklahoma currently charges $1.03 in taxes per pack of cigarettes. A bill to raise the tax by $1.50 didn't have support from three-quarters of the Legislature, which is required for a tax increase, so supporters packaged it as a “fee” and passed it with a simple majority. The Oklahoma Supreme Court promptly struck the law down as an unconstitutional tax increase, blowing a $250 million hole in the budget.

A tax increase also could pass by referendum, but that has only happened once, in 2004.

Tobacco companies are willing to offset smaller tax increases with coupons, Raskob said, but $1.50 seems to be their limit. While not everyone who is addicted to tobacco will quit when the price rises, tax increases have proved valuable in discouraging teens who have the occasional cigarette from becoming regular smokers, he said.

“What we really want to do is shut off the pipeline and the inflow of new smokers,” he said.

The state could use some of the increased revenue to target help with quitting at low-income people, who are more likely to smoke, and young people, who haven't yet done severe damage to their health and benefit most from quitting, Raskob said. The Legislature also could reduce the smoking rate without spending any money if it lifted a ban on cities and counties adopting more stringent tobacco rules, such as local ordinances banning smoking in bars, he said.

Tobacco companies required to run ads

Marketing by tobacco companies still dwarfs state anti-smoking spending in most states. In Oklahoma, tobacco companies spent about $8.50 on advertising and other promotions for every $1 the state spent on discouraging smoking in 2015, the last year with data available. Nationwide, the ratio was even more imbalanced, with tobacco companies spending about $12.40 for every $1 in anti-tobacco spending.

This year, however, tobacco companies have had to spend some money on advertising messages that discourage smoking. The largest companies have been running messages on TV and in some newspapers since November, stating that they lied about the effects of smoking.

The “corrective statements” were required after a federal court found in 2006 that major tobacco companies had violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was intended to combat organized crime, by conspiring to spread false information about their products.

While it might seem that everyone knows smoking is bad for you, a poll conducted by the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center in May found significant numbers of people didn't know all of the facts included in the corrective statements. Less than half of adults surveyed knew that tobacco companies designed cigarettes to increase their addictiveness, spread misleading information about the harms of secondhand smoke and concealed information that “light” and “low tar” cigarettes were no healthier than the ordinary version.

The statements also serve as a reminder to the public about tobacco companies' past behavior, and a caution against believing their future statements about new products, said Bisbee, the spokeswoman for the state's tobacco settlement trust.

“The corrective statements focus on a coordinated effort of an industry to addict, to lie and to design lethal products to make them more addictive and target specific groups like youth and minorities. The deception has led to the addiction and death of millions,” she said. “They are being held accountable for their acts and (the corrective statements) will continue to remind the public of the deception of an industry over at least a 50-year period.”

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›