By Dr. Joseph Reed
While West Virginia has made some headway in reducing cigarette smoking, tobacco use remains a huge problem in our state. In fact, the Mountain State has both the highest high school smoking rate (18.8 percent) and the highest adult smoking rate (24.8 percent) in the country.
Smoking is a key reason why West Virginia is considered one of the least healthy states, with high rates of tobacco-related conditions like heart disease and cancer. Every year, tobacco kills 4,300 West Virginians and costs us $1 billion in health care expenses.
In Upshur County, where I work, more than half the kids in 4th and 5th grade live in homes where tobacco is used. We are working through local coalitions and the health department to promote smoke-free and tobacco-free lifestyles, including electronic cigarettes. However, we can’t do it alone.
Without support from West Virginia’s elected officials, we won’t be able to make and sustain meaningful progress toward reducing the toll of tobacco in our state. It makes no sense that state lawmakers recently voted to eliminate funding for the state’s tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
Even worse, this action comes as tobacco companies are finding new ways to target our kids. In recent years, they’ve flooded the market with electronic cigarettes and cigars in a wild array of sweet flavors that sound like they belong in an ice cream parlor or candy shop. One study found over 7,700 different e-cigarette flavors, like cotton candy, bubble gum and cherry crush. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of cigar flavors more than doubled from 108 to 250.
Unfortunately, these tactics are working to increase tobacco use. Nationwide, e-cigarette use among high school students grew by 900 percent between 2011 and 2015, passing regular cigarettes as the most widely used tobacco product among kids. It is promising that youth e-cigarette use dropped in 2016, but it is too soon to know whether this is a long-term trend.
Once again, the problem is worse in West Virginia. Over 31 percent of West Virginia high school students use e-cigarettes, way more than smoke the regular kind. And over 17 percent of our high school boys smoke cigars.
To address these new challenges, West Virginia needs to step up its tobacco prevention efforts. We also need strong action by the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. Last year, the FDA issued new rules for e-cigarettes and cigars, aimed at protecting kids and public health.
But tobacco industry lobbyists are working overtime to roll back these rules. One bill they’re pushing in Congress would greatly limit FDA oversight of e-cigarettes and cigars already on the market. Another bill would completely exempt some cigars from the FDA’s purview.
Unfortunately, some West Virginia members of Congress are supporting these harmful efforts. Just this summer, Rep. Evan Jenkins voted for a House appropriations bill that included these two provisions. In addition, Sen. Joe Manchin is a cosponsor of the cigar exemption bill.
These West Virginia leaders should reconsider their positions in light of the health risks that cigars and e-cigarettes pose and their popularity with kids. Health authorities have found that cigar smoking causes several types of cancer, including lung cancer, and claims about 9,000 lives in the U.S. each year. Congress shouldn’t create a new loophole that tobacco companies would exploit to exempt some cheap, machine-made, flavored cigars that are attractive to kids.
E-cigarettes also pose health risks to kids. A recent Surgeon General’s report concluded that youth use of nicotine in any form can lead to addiction and harm brain development, with lasting effects on attention, learning and susceptibility to addiction. Several studies have also raised concerns that youth use of e-cigarettes could lead to use of other tobacco products, including regular cigarettes.
West Virginia’s U.S. senators and representatives should be working to protect kids from these new tobacco threats. We cannot let tobacco companies get away with using candy-flavored products to hook a new generation.