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Legislators urged not to tap tobacco funds


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POSTED: Saturday, February 28, 2009

Siphoning money from the tobacco settlement fund to cover state revenue shortages “;is not money well spent,”; says a University of Hawaii sociologist.

; “;Cutting (tobacco) prevention and control money may seem like a great short-term solution to the state's financial crisis, but it isn't,”; said 'Iwalani Else, associate director of the National Center on Indigenous Hawaiian Behavioral Health in the John A. Burns School of Medicine's psychiatry department.

Else was among speakers emphasizing that “;the fight is not over”; against tobacco at Kick Butts Day yesterday at the state Capitol.

“;Hawaii alone spends $328 million a year in (tobacco-related) medical expenses, loss of productivity, disability and premature deaths,”; she said in an interview, pointing out that smoking is associated with at least 25 chronic health problems.

Representatives of the Hawaii Tobacco Quitline, REAL: Hawaii Youth Movement Exposing the Tobacco Industry and other organizations told legislators how passage of House Bill 1731 could reverse Hawaii's smoking-related death rate—the second lowest in the nation at 1,200 a year.

Hawaii spends about $11 million a year for tobacco cessation programs—less than the $15.2 million a year recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but better than many other states.

The House bill proposes to reallocate tobacco settlement money for six years, starting July 1, and deposit 14 percent in the state general fund.

The “;staggering”; costs in illnesses, deaths and loss of productivity from smoking clearly show the benefits of prevention and control, Else said.

Adult smoking fell to 15.4 percent last year from 17 percent in 2007 as 14,000 smokers quit, the state Department of Health reported. It is one of the lowest smoking rates in the country, the Health Department said, noting the national average for adult smoking is 20 percent.

Youth smoking rates dropped to 14.8 percent in a 2007 Youth Tobacco Survey from 24.5 percent in 2000.

The figures “;represent a significant measure of success on the return of our investment in tobacco control,”; said state Health Director Chiyome Fukino. “;In addition to having close to 14,000 fewer smokers in Hawaii, the decline impacts other chronic diseases, such as asthma, heart disease and diabetes, where smoking is a major risk factor.”;

Else said her husband has severe asthma, and just inhaling smoke from smokers on the street or that drifts to their apartment severely affects him. “;I see firsthand how powerful it is,”; she said.

Else said she became interested in smoking data because “;something as simple as stopping tobacco use can have such a healthy and profound effect on life.”; Quitting at any age will extend a person's life, she said.

The tobacco industry is targeting native Hawaiians, women and youth, and formulating cigarettes and tobacco products to be highly addictive, she said. “;You used to hear that people quit cold turkey. Now people can't do that. They need (an average of) eight tries to become smoke-free now.”;

Smoking is not a Hawaiian tradition, as it was in some American Indian tribes, Else noted. “;But we continue to have the highest smoking rates for (Hawaiian) adults compared to other ethnic groups in the state. We know native Hawaiian youth start smoking younger than other groups.”;

But a 2001 study examining Hawaiian smokers found nearly half want to quit, she said. “;Let's find a way to make that happen.”;