We must do better at combating smoking scourge

ASSEMBLYMAN HAKEEM JEFFRIES | 3/1/2012, 3:13 p.m.
Just 14 percent of New York City residents smoke. That is 450,000 fewer New Yorkers...
Adriano Espaillat

Just 14 percent of New York City residents smoke. That is 450,000 fewer New Yorkers smoking than in 2002, when the city kicked off its tobacco control program, the Smoke-Free Air Act.

These gains are now at risk. The proposed budget pending before the Legislature will cut an additional $5 million out of tobacco control programs, leaving only $36.4 million, less than half of what was spent four years ago.

Aggressive, science-based tobacco control programs are why the smoking rate for most New Yorkers, including teenagers, declined over the last decade, but smoking rates have remained stubbornly high in the poorest communities, including predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. In these areas, Big Tobacco aggressively spends advertising dollars to addict our children to their deadly products.

We have to do better.

New York State receives $2 billion every year from tobacco taxes and other tobacco revenue, just a fraction of which could fully fund a robust program to help smokers quit and make sure young people do not ever start. Much of that money comes from taxes paid by addicted smokers, so it's only fair we invest a portion of it to make sure every smoker who wants to quit can and prevent more children from getting hooked by Big Tobacco.

What is more, smoking rates correlate directly to the dollars we spend on public health. Tobacco not only kills more than 25,000 New Yorkers a year--about 70 of us every day--it costs New Yorkers more than $8.1 billion annually in tobacco-related health costs, including more than $2 billion from Medicaid, and causes lost wages and productivity totaling $6.05 billion a year.

There is no question that New York's tobacco control programs--including smoke-free air laws, a telephone quit line and community initiatives to reduce tobacco use--have been successful in driving down tobacco's cost to New Yorkers in death, disease and dollars.

Today, the costs and consequences of tobacco addiction and tobacco-related death and disease are concentrated among the most vulnerable, low-income New Yorkers. That is why I am joining other legislators of color, as well as leading pro-health groups, in urging that we restore funding to effective, science-based tobacco control programs that have helped hundreds of thousands of smokers quit and kept untold thousands more from taking up the deadly habit.

It's good for public health and will save taxpayers billions of dollars. That's the definition of a win-win situation--unless you're Big Tobacco.

Hakeem Jeffries is an assemblyman representing Brooklyn's 57th District.