Reducing tobacco use in Arkansas would save lives, reduce the cost of public benefits and improve the health of all Arkansans. Legislatively, Arkansas has made great strides in reducing smoking in the workplace, in public places and for children riding in vehicles. Smoking rates have even declined slightly.
However, Arkansas still has one of the highest rates of smoking in the nation, exceeding 22 percent, compared to 18 percent nationally.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, leading to more than 400,000 deaths annually. More than 85 percent of lung cancer, the leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths, occurs in current or former smokers. Every year about 2,610 Arkansans will be diagnosed with lung or bronchus cancer; about 2,200 will die. Arkansas ranks third in the nation in deaths from lung cancer.
The nicotine in tobacco, including most vaping products, is highly addictive. As a chronic health condition, nicotine dependence affects every other aspect of health. Nicotine can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body, including the mouth, esophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, liver, pancreas, voice box, trachea, bronchus, kidneys, bladder, cervix and can cause acute myeloid leukemia. It increases risk for heart attack, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart disease by increasing blood pressure, damaging arteries, and limiting the amount of oxygen going to the body’s organs and tissues. Tobacco raises “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowers “good” HDL cholesterol. Smoking also increases the chances of impotence, having difficulty getting pregnant, premature birth, miscarriage or low-birth-weight baby.
Treating these diseases and chronic conditions is very expensive, some requiring lifetime treatment. Smoking costs Arkansas’ Medicaid program more than $795 million in health care costs every year, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.
We all pay – both directly and indirectly – for treatment through higher premiums, higher taxes to fund public health care and an economy diminished by lost productivity.
Even if you don’t smoke, you may encounter secondhand smoke – a combination of smoke from the burning end of tobacco, plus the smoke breathed out by smokers and breathed in by nonsmokers. An estimated 470 Arkansans die from secondhand smoke each year.
Children exposed to secondhand smoke have an increased risk for respiratory infections, more frequent and severe asthma attacks, ear infections and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Children whose parent smokes will get sick more often, their lungs grow less than children who do not breathe secondhand smoke, and they get more bronchitis and pneumonia.
Secondhand smoke can stay in a home or vehicle for hours after someone has smoked there. Smoke residue penetrates and contaminates every surface, from floors and carpets to walls, furniture and clothing. Secondhand smoke residue is called “thirdhand” smoke.
You can help in two ways. Support loved ones and friends who are trying to quit. About 70 percent of adults say they want to quit and try to quit at least seven times before they succeed.
There are many tools to help with smoking cessation, even a cell phone app that provides individualized help. Be sure they know about Arkansas’ excellent smoking cessation website. Smokers who quit before age 40 will reduce their chance of dying prematurely from smoking-related diseases by 90 percent.
Another way to help stop the death and disease caused by tobacco is to support smoking cessation programs and community efforts to maintain Arkansas’ ban on smoking in public places. Smoking cessation programs are cost effective, saving $1.90 to $5.75 for every $1 spent.
Decisions to start smoking and attempts to quit are influenced by laws and public policies. The most effective methods are increasing taxes on tobacco products, restricting smoking in public places, and limiting access to tobacco products and advertising.
Citizen support is essential to counter the powerful tobacco cartel’s efforts to make money from the disease and death of those we love.
Editor’s note: Ray Hanley is the President and CEO of Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care, a nonprofit organization engaged with beneficiaries and health care providers working to improve overall health and health care in Arkansas. The opinions expressed are those of the author.