By Humberto Caspa
“I want to quit smoking,” pleaded Paul Wells of 23 years of age. He was five when he, his brother and sister arrived in the United States from Poland after a long adoption process.
He had it all, a wonderful adoptive mother, the nation safest city to live in, an excellent high school in Irvine, new friend and relatives. However, his life took a bad shift when he lit his first cigarette. It never crossed in his mind that as teenager he would be so hooked on cigarettes.
Paul began smoking as early as 15 years of age. Since he put a cigarette in his mouth, his fingers have not stopped reaching for those tiny rolled up papers containing harmful substances. He knows cigarettes are bad, but wishes he had a real choice back then when he was a teenager.
Without prevention programs against tobacco smoking at schools, teenagers like Paul are easy prays to Big Tobacco.
According to government sources, each day over 3,800 minors under 18 years of age, smoke for the first time, and over 1,000 become addicted for life. “I never saw a prevention class in my school,” pointed out Paul with disappointment.
In 1998, the tobacco industry agreed on a monetary settlement with the states after prosecutors successfully proved this industry’s disingenuous portrayal of their product in the market. At the height of the trial, Dr. Victor De Noble, former researcher at Philip Morris, became a key witness to unveil his former employer’s unlawful activities. In the end, the big three, Phillip Morris, RJ Reynolds and Lorillard, agreed to repay the states $246 billion over 25 years because states had absorbed massive bills from cancer patients and other people affected with other illnesses related to tobacco smoking.
This year, states are expected to collect 25.6 billion in revenue from tobacco taxes and the tobacco settlement.
Nonetheless, only $456.7 millions (1.8 %) will be allocated in youth prevention and cessation programs. That figure is about half of what states spent during the first decade of the agreement. To make things worse, states cut down another $61.2 millions from prevention programs last year.
While states are doing less, tobacco moguls have multiplied their resources to lure teenagers into smoking. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2008 they spent around $10.5 billion in marketing. For every dollar states spent on prevention, Big Tobacco used up $27.00 to market its products.
Our youth is Big Tobacco’s primary target. An addicted teenager insures solid profits for at least 20 years or more.
Adults, on the other hand, are no longer reliable “markets,” as their health are beginning to erode, and it is just a matter of time before some of them seek remedies in public hospitals.
Our state might be in fiscal insolvency, but our willingness to stop a tobacco onslaught against our kids is not.
Proposition 29 has all the ingredients to change the dynamics of smoking. In June 5, voters in California have an opportunity to add $1.00 to a pack of cigarette. It would be a major setback to the tobacco industry. If passed, the state will collect about $835 million per year, which will be used for cancer research, prevention programs and law enforcement.
High prices on cigarettes have been enemy number one to Big Tobacco. The more expensive the pack, the less like teenagers will get one. Even tobacco moguls recognize it. “When the tax goes up, industry loses volume and profits as many smokers cut back,” stressed Ellen Merlo, senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Philip Morris. No wonder why they have raised nearly $40 million to stop Proposition 29.
For Paul Wells quitting smoking isn’t a personal decision anymore. He understands the need of a special rehabilitation program to get through his vice. Proposition 29 will give him precisely that.
Humberto Caspa, professor and researcher at Economics On The Move. E-mail: email@example.com. He is also a weekly editorial contributor of La Opinion, Spanish daily newspaper.