Lawmakers in West Virginia are in a critical position to take immediate action to guarantee that millions of youngsters avoid early death from heart disease and chronic lung disease.
That's the decision our state legislature faces this year as its members debate how to spend 1.7 billion dollars that our state will receive over the next 25 years in the settlement between the state and the tobacco industry.
The new Life Skills Training program that started this fall in all West Virginia middle schools is a vitally important component in tobacco prevention and it has been proven very effective in reducing tobacco use, but curriculum is only one piece in a comprehensive tobacco control program. School and community efforts must also be directed toward other aspects of tobacco use prevention such as counter-marketing, community programs, cessation programs, youth programs, and accountability and evaluation.
The settlement funds give our state a unique opportunity to combat this epidemic without having to raise taxes or cut back on other spending priorities. All of the money is coming from the tobacco companies. It is rare, if not unprecedented, when legislators have such an opportunity.
West Virginia sued the tobacco industry because we are spending billions of dollars caring for sick and dying smokers and other tobacco users. Since the majority of those sick smokers became addicted to cigarettes and smokeless tobacco when they were teenagers, it makes sense to spend some of the money to save the current generation of teenagers from a similar fate.
The tobacco industry's marketing efforts are extremely effective. Approximately 85% of youth who smoke prefer the three most heavily-advertised brands. Consequently, the percentage of young people who smoke is alarmingly high and more than 3,000 youngsters in the United States become regular smokers everyday. In West Virginia alone, 8,000 children become regular smokers every year, and if nothing is done to reverse the current trends, as many as 20,000 adolescents alive in West Virginia today will die prematurely from tobacco-related causes.
While other issues are also important, there is no better investment West Virginia can make to save lives, improve public health, and save money than using an adequate portion of the tobacco settlement funds to prevent and reduce tobacco use in the state. The money that would be spent now for our youngsters would be put to good use as they become healthy adults. Perhaps, it will mean our children will be around to enjoy the bright futures they so well deserve.