EDITORIAL: Lawmakers should save tobacco agency and ban smoking

January 30, 2010

When times are tight, good news can be hard to find.But here’s some good news about Indiana:

• The proportion of high school students who smoke has fallen from 32 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2008.

• Cigarette consumption has fallen from 599 million packs in 2004 to 471 million packs in 2009.

Now for the bad news: Instead of trying to continue that success, the General Assembly may sabotage it. Here’s how:

• A House of Representatives bill that would ban smoking in public places statewide got so bogged down with exemptions that it’s been withdrawn. If the bill fails again for the second year, we’ll remain one of only 12 states without some sort of ban.

This is a law that would put a more progressive face on our unhealthy state, and help save some of the 1,000-plus Hoosiers who die every year as a result of secondhand smoke—all with no new spending.

• Senate Bill 298 would abolish the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Agency. The 10-year-old agency’s efforts have achieved national recognition.

In addition to its staff of 14, the agency has a 20-member board that includes representatives of major medical and cancer groups, as well as top state officials such as the health commissioner, the attorney general and the superintendent of public instruction.

Having such broad representation on the board helps assure that anti-tobacco programs touch as many Hoosiers as possible, and that state agencies and not-for-profits work together to improve our common health.

Under the proposed legislation, the duties of the anti-smoking agency would be folded into the State Department of Health. Fighting smoking would become just another responsibility for employees who already have full-time jobs. It would be a shame to lose the expertise developed by this staff and board over the past 10 years.

Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, the bill’s author, claims that abolishing the agency could save the state up to $1.1 million a year. But what about the $2.1 billion the state spends every year on medical expenses directly related to tobacco use? If those expenses keep falling, the anti-tobacco agency could more than pay for itself.

It’s ironic that these legislative moves are taking place just as the Indiana Cancer Consortium releases goals for reducing the prevalence of this killer disease. Among the group’s priorities: lowering the smoking rate, enacting a comprehensive smoke-free workplace law and increasing funding for tobacco control and prevention.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, as well as in Indiana, where deaths from lung and bronchial cancer are nearly 20 percent above the national average.

If the General Assembly wants to create some good news in this budget-conscious short session, it will continue our wise investment in Hoosier health, and go one better by passing a statewide smoking ban.

To do otherwise would just be blowing smoke.•


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