HUNTINGTON — Despite more than half of West Virginia’s 55 counties receiving top marks, West Virginia as a whole is failing on its efforts to reduce and prevent tobacco use, including e-cigarettes, according to a report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association.
The 18th annual “State of Tobacco Control” report grades states and the federal government on policies proven to prevent and reduce tobacco use. West Virginia received an overall F.
The report grades states on five criteria: funding for state tobacco prevention programs; strength of smoke-free workplace laws; level of state tobacco taxes; coverage and access to services to quit tobacco; and the minimum age of sale for tobacco products being 21.
West Virginia received Fs in all categories except strength of smoke-free workplaces, for which it received a D. The report noted that almost 60 percent of the state’s population is covered by comprehensive local smoke-free regulations, but because state code is so lax, the state still received a low grade. Cabell County received an A; Kanawha received an A; Wayne a B; and Putnam an F.
The report listed three recommendations for West Virginia lawmakers to improve the state’s grades.
First, the American Lung Association suggests raising tobacco taxes, which they say is one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, including among youth. Multiple studies have shown that every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4 percent among adults and about 7 percent among youth.
“To protect kids from a lifetime of nicotine addiction, the Lung Association in West Virginia encourages West Virginia to increase cigarette taxes by $1 per pack and equalize the tax on other tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, with its cigarette tax. These steps are critical to West Virginia as current tobacco use, including vaping, among youth is 26.6%,” said Sarah Lawver, American Lung Association director of advocacy, West Virginia, in a news release.
A pack of 20 cigarettes is taxed at $1.20 currently. E-cigarettes, or vapes, because they do not contain tobacco, are taxed at 7.5 cents per milliliter sold. Legislators in the House of Delegates have introduced a bill with bipartisan support to raise the tax on vapes to 15 cents per milliliter, with 7.5 cents of every product sold going into a new Young West Virginians Tobacco Cessation Initiative fund. The bill is referred to the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
The American Lung Association also suggests increasing funding for tobacco prevention and programs geared at helping people quit smoking. After depleting the fund a few years ago during tight budget times, the West Virginia Legislature allocated $500,000 for tobacco prevention and cessation last year.
“Despite West Virginia receiving $235.5 million from tobacco settlement payments and tobacco taxes, the state funds tobacco control efforts at only 7.4 percent of the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Lawver said.
There is bipartisan support on both sides of the Capitol building to increase funding in this area. Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said last week he wants to see funding to restore Raze, a school-based prevention program, particularly with the rise of vaping.
A report released by the state Department of Health and Human Resources recently found youth vaping has increased 150 percent in just the past three years. More than 1 in 3, or 35.7 percent, of West Virginia high school students report current use of e-cigarettes.
“In West Virginia, our tobacco use rates remain among the highest in the nation at 35 percent among adults and 26.6 percent among high school students. Sadly, with the youth vaping epidemic still rising, we may have lost an opportunity to make the current generation of kids the first tobacco-free generation,” Lawver said.
Finally, the ALA suggests covering and providing FDA-approved smoking cessation treatments for state residents. While West Virginia has taken steps by covering all FDA-approved tobacco cessation medications, access should also include all three forms of counseling without barriers, such as co-pays and prior authorization.
Increasing the reach of the West Virginia Quitline for tobacco users is also essential, the report states. Rohrbach has also introduced a bill to require all tobacco/vape vendors post the Quitline sign in their business.
One major tool pushed by the ALA in the past was achieved at the end of 2019 when the federal government raised the age requirement to purchase tobacco products to 21. Virtually all adult smokers had their first cigarette before age 21, and most before the age of 18, the lung association said. The association also says states need to take it a step further and ban all flavored products.
Bills have been introduced to raise the age limit to 21, but also prohibit the gifting of tobacco products to anyone under 18.