TODAY IS A GREAT day to stop smoking, and we offer our encouragement to everyone who is using the occasion of the Great American Smokeout to try to break their addiction to nicotine.
There are programs and products and practices that can help, from nicotine gum and prescription drugs to the S.C. Tobacco Quitline, a free phone-based counseling service that the Department of Health and Environmental Control provides for all state residents at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. (For tips on simple steps that can help, from throwing away all your cigarettes to enrolling the encouragement of friends and family, go to www.scdhec.gov and select "News Releases" on the right-hand side of the page.)
But even with all the drugs and counseling and family support and determination in the world, it won't be easy. Seventy percent of adult smokers say they want to quit - but haven't been able to do so. Little wonder: Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet, and for years the cigarette companies have been deliberately manipulating nicotine levels in their products for the express purpose of cultivating and nurturing that addiction.
What makes this such a tragedy - and outrage - is that smoking is so very deadly to smokers, dangerous to anyone who spends time breathing other people's smoke, and costly to taxpayers.
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That's why prevention is essential. And it's why our government needs to take what reasonable steps it can to help people avoid this addiction to begin with - and to protect the public against the threat of those who start anyway and then can't stop.
Toward that end, there are two primary and obvious steps the Legislature can and should take:
- Raise the cigarette tax by at least 50 cents a pack. The single most effective way to stop teens from smoking is to price cigarettes out of their reach. Every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes reduces the number of kids who start smoking by 7 percent; a 50-cent increase would translate into 400 children not becoming smokers every year. The Congress has done a great public health service by raising the federal tax by 50 cents per pack, but our state tax, the lowest in the nation, remains a piddling 7 cents per pack. Raising that tax on top of the new federal tax, in the middle of a recession, would be a true shock to the pocketbooks of aspiring addicts.
- Ban smoking in workplaces. Because of the Legislature's refusal to treat cigarette smoke the same way it treats a host of other, less certain dangers in the workplace, local governments across the state have been imposing their own prohibitions - which are far better than no bans but which usually have significant loopholes and create that patchwork of restrictions that businesses worry will drive smokers just across the street, to that bar or restaurant that's in the county instead of the city, or across county lines. (Of course, the bans also have the opposite effect, driving nonsmokers across streets and jurisdictional lines in the opposite direction - but that's another story.)
Neither of these steps will cost our cash-starved government a dime. In fact, although we wish it would have such a strong deterrent effect that it would reduce revenue, even a state tax increase on top of the federal increase still would raise revenue collections, so strong is the addictive pull on those who did take up smoking as teenagers.
More importantly, these steps will improve the health and even save the lives of nonsmokers and of all of those children who would have become smokers without the changes. And as an added bonus, they will save money for everyone who pays taxes or has health insurance, because we ultimately end up paying a large portion of the cost of treating smoking addicts, through Medicaid, Medicare and the cost-shifting that insurance companies and hospitals do.