Oklahomans expected to keep quitline busy after cigarette tax increase
Oklahoma City — A smoking habit got quite a bit more expensive for Oklahomans on Monday, and public health advocates are trying to make the most of a moment when quitting cigarettes might suddenly look more attractive.
As many as 18,700 adult smokers in Oklahoma are expected to try to quit as they begin to absorb the sticker shock of paying an extra $1 in taxes on each pack of cigarettes or little cigars. The increase brings Oklahoma's total cigarette tax to $2.03 per pack, moving the state from 35th-highest to 15th in tobacco taxes.
John Woods, executive director of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust, said he expects an uptick in calls to the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline over the next few months. The helpline offers coaching over the phone, by text message, or online at any time. It also can provide two weeks' worth of nicotine patches, gum, or lozenges.
The number of calls to the helpline roughly doubled compared to the prior year the last time cigarette taxes went up in Oklahoma. That was in 2009, when the federal tax rose by 62 cents, Woods said.
An even bigger benefit might be from fewer teens becoming smokers, Woods said. About 17,300 teens who otherwise would have become daily smokers are expected not to develop an addiction because of the higher tax, according to a report from the American Cancer Society, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and Tobacconomics.
Young people tend to not have much disposable income, and 18-year-old smokers are less likely to share cigarettes with their younger friends as the price goes up, Woods said. Teens are particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction because their brains are still developing, so delaying a person's first cigarette dramatically lowers the odds he'll become a smoker.
“The price point can be a difference maker,” he said.
Though raising the cost of cigarettes can motivate people to quit, it still isn't easy. The average person tries five to eight times before quitting for good, said Jennifer Vidrine, director of the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center.
People who receive counseling and use nicotine replacement therapy are more likely to succeed in quitting smoking, Vidrine said, but only about 5 percent of people trying to quit get those types of help. Both types of assistance are available through the quitline and the tobacco research center, but unfortunately many people don't know that help is available, she said.
Most people eventually taper off their use of nicotine replacement because of the cost, Vidrine said, but using it indefinitely might be right for some people. While nicotine isn't totally harmless, it's far less dangerous than the tar and other chemicals in cigarettes, she said.
“If somebody was on the nicotine patch for the rest of their life, it's not a big deal,” she said.
Electronic cigarettes might be a good option for some people looking to quit, Vidrine said, though there is a public health concern that they'll lead to more young people getting hooked on nicotine.
“There's a continuum of risk,” she said.
In the 1950s, smoking was incredibly common across classes and demographic groups, Vidrine said. Now, people who smoke are more likely to be poor or to have a mental illness. That's partly due to stressful lives that make it harder to quit, and partly because the tobacco industry has geared its marketing to those groups, she said.
“It's become more heavily concentrated in groups that have fewer resources,” she said.
Some people argue that cigarette taxes place heavier burdens on people who can't afford to pay, but Vidrine says they're a vital tool for improving the health of vulnerable groups.
“It's not that they're happy smoking and want to smoke and are happy to be spending their money on cigarettes,” she said. Tax increases “have a bigger public health impact than any treatment we can offer.”
How to get help
For help quitting smoking, call 800-784-8669 (QUIT-NOW), or visit OKHelpline.com. The tobacco research center also offers treatment, with the option of participating in studies on tobacco cessation. For more information, call 405-271-7848 or email email@example.com.