Sunday, June 4, 2017

Tobacco Problem Worse Than Opioids

We see it in the local news on a regular basis -- an endless stream of police blotters and stories chronicling drug-related arrests and deaths. We see it in the obituaries -- people dying well before reaching senior citizen status, leaving behind shattered families and heartbroken friends.

Opioid  abuse has consumed southern West Virginia. The devastation has been well documented through the years as this scourge seems to successfully resist all attempts to bring things under control.

As horrible as the opioid epidemic is, the ravages of tobacco use among West Virginians is far worse. Cancer, stroke, and heart or lung failure are terms that appear in area death certificates with dreary regularity.

In the United States as a whole, the number of people smoking has dwindled greatly since the 1950s, when nearly half the population smoked, to about eighteen percent today. In West Virginia, however, over one-fourth of the population is still smoking, using smokeless tobacco, or indulging in both.

As these tobacco users' health begins to decline, their problems impact not only them, but others as well. Sick smokers burden our healthcare system, forcing costs up for everyone. Employers have to endure absenteeism and lowered productivity. Babies born to smoking mothers are at high risk for asthma, heart defects and a laundry list of other disorders.

Over 80 percent of smokers say they want to kick the habit. West Virginia needs to do more to encourage them to quit. The state's cigarette taxes are among some of the lowest in the nation and need to be raised significantly.

The legislature needs to partner with companies in the state to reduce smoking rates among their workforces. Clean air ordinances need to be strengthened and stringently enforced -- not just to give smokers less opportunity to indulge in the habit while in public places, but to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke.

Opioid abuse has commanded the majority of the headlines but it's time we paid more attention to the horrors of nicotine, a substance that leaves OxyContin and heroin in the dust when it comes to ruining lives.

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