Along with adult and childhood obesity, the health problems related to tobacco use are entrenched among Alabama’s worst public health concerns. All of them are significant. That said, the state has been aggressive at times against obesity (the “Scale Back Alabama” program) as well as this decade’s rise in methamphetamine use (“Zerometh,” a program sponsored by the Alabama District Attorneys Association).
But tobacco use?
Not so much.
On Sunday, a story by Star reporter Eddie Burkhalter pointed out just how insufficient the state’s tobacco-prevention use efforts have been. If you only heed one fact, heed this one: Alabama ranked 49th — next to last — in the United States in recommended spending on tobacco-use prevention, according to a coalition of health organization study released in December.
Put bluntly, Alabama twiddles its fingers, doing virtually nothing, while large numbers of Alabamians continue to smoke and suffer from the wide range of health problems that smoking causes. It’s as if Montgomery doesn’t care.
We get it; lobbyists for tobacco, for grocers, convenience stores and gas stations — places where cigarettes are hot commodities — make it difficult for legislators or state officials to raise a big-enough stink about this foul product. It takes political bravery to act in the best interest of the people when faced with special-interest pressure. Bravery, sadly, is in short supply at Alabama’s Statehouse.
But the facts are clear. Alabamians smoke, Alabamians die of smoking-related illnesses, and the state does little to change that behavior.
In 2011, Alabama ranked 42nd worst in the United States in terms of smoking prevalence, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That same year, Alabama ranked 42nd worst in the number of high school students who smoked (22 percent).
In 2009, a University of Alabama study showed that 18 percent of all deaths that year in the state were attributable to smoking.
There’s more. Remember that No. 49 ranking in the recommended amount of tobacco-use spending? The details matter. The CDC recommends that Alabama spend $56 million a year to help residents either kick the habit or not take it up. This year, the state will spend $275,000 on such efforts — less than 1 percent of the CDC’s guidelines.
All sorts of intangibles are mixed in the stew of causes of tobacco use. Education plays a role. So, too, does income. It’s not as simple as putting up a stop sign and expecting people to abide by it.
But if Montgomery’s decision-makers wanted to make a real difference in Alabamians’ lives, this would be the perfect place to start. There’s little you can do for someone that’s better than helping them live a healthy life.