Don't let up on tobacco


POSTED: Thursday, October 08, 2009

Hawaii has been winning on every front of the war against smoking, most recently cutting nearly in half the illegal sales of cigarettes to minors in the past year. But the effort is now limited because of diversions of money from a tobacco fund set up to combat the deadly addiction. Legislators should restore the fund at the earliest opportunity as the economy recovers.

The state Department of Health reported this week that sales to minors in Hawaii dropped from 11.2 percent in 2008 to only 6.2 percent this year, according to inspections of retail outlets.

The reduction is significant because more than 80 percent of adult smokers started the habit before reaching the age of 18, noted Dr. Chiyome Fukino, the state director of health.

Hawaii has used money from a 1998 national settlement with tobacco companies to discourage smoking.

Nearly three-fourths of the $53 million it has been receiving yearly has gone to quit-smoking activities, while the remainder has gone to the state's rainy-day fund or other state activities unrelated to smoking.

However, this year's Legislature took more than one-fourth of the money from the fund to help balance the state's budget. That and any other raiding of the tobacco fund should be regarded as temporary so the effort to discourage smoking can be fully restored.

Tobacco tax increases in Hawaii have contributed to the effort, as a 10 percent increase in cigarette prices reduces consumption by 3 percent to 5 percent and discourages young people from lighting up with regularity. The federal tax on cigarettes went from 39 cents a pack to $1.01 at the end of March.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that the tobacco industry spends $42 million a year on advertising and promoting tobacco products in Hawaii alone.

The Food and Drug Administration's recent ban on companies selling flavored cigarettes, except menthol, should help counter Big Tobacco's attempt to entice young people.

Fukino says Hawaii spends $336 million a year on tobacco-related medical costs and $308 million in lost productivity from tobacco-related illnesses.

More than 1,100 people in Hawaii die of smoking-related illnesses.