ATLANTA — Georgia received three F’s and one C in the latest American Lung Association assessment of states’ tobacco control efforts, released this week.
The 2016 Georgia grades, the same as last year, reflect inadequate funding for anti-smoking initiatives, the report says.
Most other states also received an “F” on three measures: spending on tobacco prevention and control; smoking cessation programs; and tobacco taxes.
Georgia’s C grade came for smoke-free air laws, or initiatives to curb exposure to secondhand smoke.
June Deen, of the American Lung Association of the Southeast, reiterated her organization’s call for a higher cigarette tax in Georgia.
That tax is 37 cents per pack – the third-lowest in the nation. The average state cigarette tax is $1.61, Deen said. “We just continue to fall behind,” she said.
An increase in the levy would deter many youths from smoking by making tobacco more expensive, she said.
It also could raise millions of dollars for other health programs and initiatives, said Terry Pechacek, a professor of health management and policy at Georgia State University.
A proposal to hike the cigarette tax has been a tough sell in the Georgia General Assembly, where opposition to tax increases is strong. But the idea has gained support from a number of lawmakers and the general public.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. It causes more than 11,000 deaths in Georgia annually, and its direct health care costs in the state amount to more than $3 billion a year.
The report said 17.4 percent of Georgia adults are smokers.
Deen of the Lung Association said the state could benefit greatly by increasing funding for the tobacco quit line.
And she noted that Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is one of the few major airports that still allows smoking.
Georgia State’s Pechacek on Thursday said that by not having stronger anti-smoking programs, “Georgia is missing a great opportunity to invest in actions that would not only improve the health of Georgians but save money as well.”
The state used to fund anti-tobacco efforts at a $20 million a year level, he said. Now’s it down to about $4 million.
“The $20 million should be at least a floor,” said Pechacek, who worked for many years at the CDC as an expert on smoking’s impact on health.
Anti-tobacco measures have a very high return on investment, he said.
Despite the report’s findings, the state Department of Public Health said Thursday that “Georgia is proud of its progress on tobacco control.”
Tobacco use rates continue to decline among adults and youth, and rates among the 18- to 24-year-old age range have dropped dramatically, “indicating youth are reaching adulthood without smoking and are more likely to be tobacco-free as adults,” Nancy Nydam, spokeswoman for Public Health, said in a statement Thursday.
Of Georgia’s 181 school districts, 105 are now tobacco-free, protecting more than 1.3 million students, Nydam added.
Nearly 70 percent of all adults in Georgia who smoke want to quit, she said. Health care systems such as Northside, WellStar and Tanner are joining the fight against tobacco by implementing practices like Ask, Advise and Refer to the Georgia Tobacco Quitline as a routine practice for all patients, she said.
Georgia’s smoking law
Pechacek and Deen noted some exemptions in Georgia’s indoor anti-smoking law, in terms of bars and restaurants.
The 2005 law has some exceptions to the overall ban, including allowing smoking in an establishment if it prohibits entry to anyone under age 18.
Georgia State researchers last year found that the percentage of Georgia restaurants and bars allowing smoking nearly doubled in the first six years after the law’s passage.
The state’s C grade for smoke-free laws “is generous,” Pechacek said.
Nationally, the Lung Association report found that while significant progress has been made in reducing youth cigarette smoking – an almost 42 percent decline in high school smoking rates since 2011 – young people’s use of other tobacco or smoking products, including e-cigarettes, is skyrocketing.
Pechacek said e-cigarettes, which do not burn tobacco but deliver nicotine like real cigarettes, are dangerous for young adults. But at the same time, he said, e-cigarettes could be a solution for older adults’ cigarette addictions, as research has found they are less risky than traditional smoking.
“We need to regulate them and put out the proper information about them,” he said.
He also recommends raising the legal age for all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21.