Anti-smoking efforts should target root causes

Monday, December 17, 2007

Government spending needs to be watched all the time, but some of it more than others.

Some programs make sense -- collecting gasoline taxes to repair roads is one good example -- while others are harder to justify.

It's especially true when there's tax money involved, as is the case the vast majority of the time.

But it's even more important when money from another source that's being spent -- "free" money may be more likely to be spent in a less responsible manner.

This year, Nebraska will collect nearly $113 million from a 1998 settlement of claims by states against four major U.S. tobacco companies for smoking-related medical expenses.

Anti-smoking groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association and American Lung Association, however, point out that Nebraska is spending only $2.5 million a year on tobacco prevention programs, down from $3 million last year.

That ranks Nebraska 37th in the nation for the money it spends to discourage kids from using tobacco.

How serious is the smoking problem? Serious.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

* 23 percent of high school students in the United States are current cigarette smokers.

* Approximately 26 percent of whites, 22 percent of Hispanics and 13 percent of African Americans in high school are current cigarette smokers.

* Eight percent of middle school students are cigarette smokers -- 9 percent of them females and 8 percent males.

* Each day in the United States, approximately 4,000 young people between 12 and 17 take up smoking, and 1,140 become daily cigarette smokers.

But we're not convinced throwing money at the problem is always effective.

In fact, a 2005 review of eight studies that followed more than 25,000 mostly middle-school-age children who attended anti-smoking classes during the school day found that by their senior year in high school, there was no difference in the smoking habits of children who'd attended classes compared to those who hadn't. Both groups reported more than half of them had smoked recently.

A look at a typical teen smoker shows that he or she first tried cigarettes in sixth or seventh grade, doesn't do well in academics, doesn't feel a part of the school and becomes isolated from other students. He or she can't perform as well as sports, feels little hope of going to college, needs a job to support the smoking habit, and get in trouble for skipping classes.

Alcohol and other illegal substances are often involved, and the student uses tobacco as a form of relief from pressure at home and school. In fact, they often enjoy trying to hide their smoking.

To be truly effective, any anti-smoking program would have to deal with the underlying issues, not just deliver the "don't smoke" message.

We're not convinced it will do any good to throw more money at the same old programs.

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