ALA report: Federal and state actions to limit tobacco use fall short


Tobacco use is currently at an all-time low thanks to public and private efforts, but more aggressive action from federal, state, and local governments is needed to protect the public, according to a review of tobacco control trends in the United States.

State spending on tobacco prevention for fiscal year 2019

The American Lung Association (ALA) released “State of Tobacco Control” 2019, its 17th annual state-by-state analysis and list of recommended policy priorities to limit tobacco use. Although the report notes some positive steps taken by the federal and state governments, shortfalls in policy and legislation also are highlighted. The report states, “We know how and are ready to save more lives, but we need our elected officials to do much more. To many, solving America’s tobacco crisis might seem like a complex puzzle with no solution. And yet we have known for years what pieces are needed to reduce the disease and death caused by tobacco use.”

In this report, the federal government and each state are graded on a scale, A through F, for policy actions and laws to limit tobacco use. The grading methodology is based on a detailed point system cataloging the implementation and strength of specific actions and policies to limit tobacco use.

Areas of Impact

The report focused on six areas of public policy that affect exposure to and use of tobacco:

  • Smoke-free air: Protecting the public from secondhand smoke should be a priority for policymakers, according the report, but 22 states have no smoke-free workplace laws in place. Laws restricting e-cigarettes in workplaces and public buildings have lagged behind tobacco laws in many states.
  • Tobacco prevention funding: Dedicated funds to prevent tobacco addiction before it starts is a key element of a public health attack on tobacco use, but no U.S. state currently spends what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended. Twenty years ago, the Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and 46 states and the District of Columbia guaranteed ongoing payments to the states to be used for tobacco prevention and control. Although those funds have been collected in the states to the tune of $27 billion since 1998, overall only 2.4% of those funds have been spent for this purpose, and the rest has been budgeted for other purposes.
  • Tobacco taxes: Sales taxes on tobacco products have been highly effective in preventing young people from taking up tobacco use, but those taxation rates have remained unchanged in 2018 in all but the District of Columbia and Oklahoma. The tobacco industry spent $22 million in a successful effort to defeat ballot measures to increase sales taxes on tobacco in Montana and South Dakota.
  • Tobacco 21: “Increasing the legal age of sale for tobacco products to 21 would decrease tobacco use by 12% and could prevent 223,000 deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019,” the report noted, citing a 2015 report by the Institute of Medicine. So far, the this restriction has been legislated in six states, the District of Columbia, and numerous local governments. The ALA considers increasing the age for tobacco sales to 21 to be a public health priority.
  • Helping smokers quit: The addictive qualities of tobacco mean that many smokers struggle unsuccessfully to quit, and medical intervention is needed to help them. The report notes that current law requires that Medicaid expansion health plans and private insurance plans cover comprehensive smoking cessation treatment. However, not all states have the expanded Medicaid program, and many of those with Medicaid expansion don’t offer coverage of all Food and Drug–approved cessation treatments. Despite laws requiring smoking cessation coverage, many private insurance plans still do not include this coverage. The ALA recommends enforcement of the current law with regard to tobacco cessation insurance coverage.
  • FDA regulation of tobacco products: The FDA has announced plans to make a major effort to reduce tobacco use in young people, decrease nicotine in cigarettes, and to restrict flavored tobacco products. But these plans fall short of the aggressive action needed to curb the tobacco “epidemic,” according to the report. Delayed action and timid policy have “resulted in tobacco companies becoming more emboldened to devise new and egregious ways to addict youth and sustain addiction among current users.” The ALA report points to the steep rise in e-cigarette use among youth with a 20.8% rise in high school students using these products in 2018, a rise from 11.7% in 2017. This trend is not likely to be reversed by the FDA proposals to date, which rely on voluntary action by the industry to curb youth use, sales restrictions to youth, and restrictions on some flavored tobacco products.

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