Reports vary: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control say that West Virginia has America’s worst cigarette smoking rate — 26.5 percent of adults. But a new Gallup-Healthways survey ranked the Mountain State second-worst, at 29.9 percent, just behind Kentucky at 30.2.
Whatever the actual figure, it’s a tragedy that so many, many West Virginians needlessly hurt their health and shorten their lives through nicotine addiction. Smoking provides no human benefit. But after smokers become addicted, nicotine clamps a strong grip on their lives, forcing them to continue sucking smoke into their lungs.
The CDC says:
“Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths, or one of every five deaths, each year. More than 16 million Americans suffer from a disease caused by smoking. Overall smoking prevalence declined from 2005 (20.9 percent) to 2012 (18.1 percent).”
Poorer and less-educated Americans tend to smoke more. The CDC says 27.9 percent of U.S. adults below the poverty level smoke, but only 17 percent of those above the poverty level. And 24.7 percent of high school dropouts smoke, compared with only 9.1 percent of college graduates and 5.9 percent of people with postgraduate degrees.
The latest issue of the West Virginia Medical Journal says that surrounding states all enjoyed a smoking decline since 1995, but the Mountain State made no progress. Kanawha Health Director Rahul Gupta, co-author of the article, blames the lack of a comprehensive statewide plan.
The CDC says West Virginia should allocate $27.4 million yearly to halt smoking, but only $6.3 million is spent.
Timidly, the Legislature refuses to raise the state’s absurdly low cigarette tax of 55 cents per pack, while Pennsylvania collects $1.60 and Ohio charges $1.25 to dissuade teens from becoming hooked. Likewise, the Legislature won’t impose statewide indoor smoke limits for public places, but leaves control in the hands of 55 separate county health boards. As a result, about half of the state bans indoor smoking and half allows it.
Nearly 4,000 West Virginians die annually from tobacco diseases, and the state loses $2 billion in medical expense and lost productivity, medical reporter Lydia Nuzum related. This is a senseless waste of human lives and potential, caused by nicotine addiction pushed by big tobacco corporations.
It’s shameful that this state ranks worst, or second-worst, in this sickening score. Conscientious legislators should double the cigarette tax and impose a statewide indoor smoke ban for public facilities. Maybe these steps would help West Virginia join states that are making gains against the tobacco curse.