Smoking rates in West Virginia are appalling. Though adult smoking rates in surrounding states have declined significantly over the past two decades, rates in the Mountain State have remained the same. In fact, in 20 counties, the rates hover between 30 and 34.9 percent. In two counties, the rates are between 35 and 39.9 percent.
In Wood County, the population includes between 25 and 29.9 percent of adults who smoke.
Numbers of this magnitude are a public health crisis. And they do not account for the number of folks who use smokeless tobacco – some of whom are dual users who do so during work hours, when they are not allowed to smoke.
What does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say West Virginia officials should do about the problem? Spend more money, of course. The CDC’s Best Practices guideline for 2014 for smoking-cessation funding in the state is $27.4 million per year, but the state is spending only $6.3 million on tobacco prevention and control efforts, of which West Virginia contributes nearly $5 million from its general fund. The rest comes from the CDC.
Where, then, would another more than $21 million be found to throw at a problem that is far more complex than can be solved with slick advertising campaigns and larger warning labels? The education and prevention efforts that work for the kinds of people who live in places like New York and California will not have the same effect on residents of West Virginia. Cultural norms that include fierce independence combined with an economic outlook that has been less-than-rosy for generations mean the CDC’s Best Practices are likely not tailored to make a real difference in most of West Virginia, no matter how much money is spent.
On the other hand, one step lawmakers might want to examine is an increase in tobacco taxation rates that are now the second-lowest in the country. Eleven years ago, the rate in West Virginia was raised to 55 cents. By comparison, the rate in Ohio is $1.25. A hit to the wallet will speak to Mountain State smokers in a way $27.4 million of “outreach” cannot.