Tobacco addiction is among the most serious health threats to young West Virginians. Almost exclusively, adults get juveniles hooked by providing them with tobacco products.
Our state has an abysmal record of preventing that, according to a report from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Periodically, the agency checks whether retailers are obeying state laws banning sales of tobacco products to minors. According to the administration's most recent report, 14.6 percent of West Virginia stores are not enforcing the ban.
Just four other states and the District of Columbia had worse records (the highest rate of non-compliance, 19.3 percent, was in Oregon). Most surrounding states did much better. Ohio had a 9.9 percent violation rate, with Pennsylvania at 6.1 percent. Only Maryland, at 17 percent, was worse in this region.
Law enforcement agencies often conduct compliance sweeps to ensure stores are not selling alcohol to minors. Obviously, because alcohol abuse can result in swift tragedy through vehicle crashes and other types of accidents, that is an appropriate priority.
Tobacco addiction claims even more lives than alcohol, but through a slower, often more agonizing process. Lung cancer and heart disease are just two of the illnesses caused and/or aggravated by tobacco use. According to the SAMHSA, tobacco use is the leading cause of death in the United States.
Clearly West Virginia needs to do a better job in keeping tobacco products out of the hands of young people. If that requires more active compliance checks such as those involving alcohol, they should be employed.
Just a few years ago, the state received about $1.7 billion as its share of a lawsuit settlement against tobacco companies. Very little of the money was used for tobacco cessation programs or efforts to keep young people from becoming hooked in the first place.
More needs to be done to keep one of the most dangerous drugs available - nicotine - out of the hands of minors. Failure to take decisive action will doom tens of thousands of young people to disease and premature death.