This year’s Tobacco-Free Oklahoma Week, which officially began Monday, is broadening its focus to include not only public awareness campaigns on the health effects of smoking, but also on the financial costs to smokers and non-smokers.
Gov. Mary Fallin issued the proclamation last Friday, designating Jan. 29-Feb. 4 as Tobacco-Free Oklahoma Week, “a week highlighting the price all Oklahomans pay for tobacco use, whether they smoke or not.”
The week-long state tobacco holiday focuses on the health risks of smoking, but this year also takes aim at the financial burden borne by the state’s non-smokers due to the secondary costs of tobacco use.
“We’ve worked on health issues for many years, but tobacco use is costing all of us money, too,” said Garfield County Tobacco Free Coalition program coordinator Annie Evans. “We’re all paying more for health insurance, we’re paying more for Medicaid, we’re paying more for sick days and sick leave, because smokers are sick more and out of work more.”
Evans said the financial costs of tobacco use are disproportionately borne by low-income segments of the population that can least afford the added expense.
Of the individuals who called the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline in a recent survey, nearly 57 percent made less than $20,000 per year and 61 percent had a high school education or less.
“Big tobacco targets these segments of our society because tobacco is a cheap high; they can feel better for a short time for a relatively small amount, but once they get hooked, that financial amount grows rapidly and eventually they’re spending money on tobacco instead of food,” Evans said.
Oklahoma’s rate of tobacco use and its tobacco-related expenses remain high by national standards.
Oklahoma’s national health ranking remains at 46th out of the 50 states, largely due to the state’s comparatively high rate of adult smokers — nearly 26 percent. Tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable death in Oklahoma, claiming more than 6,000 Oklahomans’ lives each year according to figures provided by the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET).
Aside from the unnecessary toll in human health and lives, officials point out tobacco use also is putting a strain on the state’s economy and on individuals’ bank accounts, even if they don’t smoke.
According to the TSET figures, Oklahoma businesses lose an average of $4,400 each year for every employee who smokes.
Tobacco-related business costs are driven by increased sick days and disability, higher medical and insurance costs, and shorter, less productive work lives among smoking employees, according to the TSET press release.
Each Oklahoma taxpayer also bears part of the cost of shoring up the state’s health care system. The TSET figures indicate Oklahoma’s annual health care costs directly caused by smoking are $1.16 billion, including $218 million in Medicaid costs.
The report goes on to state every Oklahoma household “on average pays $548 each year in state and federal taxes related to smoking costs, whether anyone in the household smokes or not.”
“Reducing tobacco use and making a commitment to a healthier workforce must be a top priority for all Oklahomans if we are serious about continued economic growth for the state,” said TSET Executive Director Tracey Strader. “Existing and prospective employers closely examine health care costs when considering expansion and relocation. A healthy work force can only sharpen our competitive edge and further economic development for the state.”
Strader said Oklahoma businesses can take steps to improve their employees’ health, and thus their bottom line. Some of those steps may include making business properties tobacco-free, offering health insurance that covers tobacco cessation and participating in the Oklahoma Certified Healthy Business program.
“We know, and other states have demonstrated, that tobacco use can be reduced through effective policies and programs at local and state levels,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Terry Cline. “However, until the laws put in place in Oklahoma in the 1980s and ’90s due to tobacco industry influence are repealed, and local rights are returned to communities, Oklahoma’s cities and towns will continue to be prohibited from passing local tobacco prevention ordinances that protect their citizens and help create a healthier work force.
“Not only is tobacco use taking a personal toll in increasing preventable disease and early death among Oklahomans, its associated costs are killing the economic growth of our communities and our state. From individuals, to communities, to our businesses, each of us has a role to play to prevent and reduce the use of tobacco. Ultimately, this will improve the lives and livelihoods of all Oklahomans.”
The Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline offers free tobacco-cessation information and support at (800) QUIT-NOW.
In honor of Tobacco-Free Oklahoma Week, organizers are offering Oklahomans a chance to share their stories about how tobacco has impacted their lives for the chance to win four tickets to the Oklahoma City Thunder home game on Feb. 3 versus Memphis. Go to Thunder.nba.com to share your story by 3 p.m. Wednesday for a chance to win the tickets.