Guest Editorial

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Death & Money: un-'hooking' of Iowa teens

It all comes down to death and money," Thomas Oldham, an 18-year-old student at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, said. "The simple fact is that 430,000 Americans are dying every year from tobacco, and the tobacco industry targets teens. The tobacco industry knows that if they don't target teens, they will be out of business in thirty years. If we can prevent smoking, it will save the states massive amounts of money, and will save thousands of lives."

Oldham is the president of JEL Iowa. JEL, or Just Eliminate Lies, is one of the most effective and visible tobacco prevention programs in Iowa. Four years ago as a result of the

tobacco litigation settlement, the Iowa Department of Public Health set up JEL as a youth group to help design messages to prevent youths from smoking.

JEL has placed hard-hitting TV and radio commercials on the airwaves throughout Iowa, and has also sponsored eye-catching billboards with memorable imagery. For example, one billboard shows a picture of a fishing lure that says "Hooks Fish." Next to that is an image of a cigarette that

says "Hooks Teens."

The JEL messages are especially effective because they are written for young people, by young people. Sometimes young people don't feel the need to be involved in public policy and public service because they do not understand how it affects their lives, but the members of JEL are clear examples of what young people can do to make a difference.

The risks of smoking have been well known for 30 years, but the costs of smoking continue to take a heavy toll on the lives of Iowans and the overall health of our state. Tobacco use in Iowa accounts for 4,600 adult deaths each year, with hundreds more deaths related to secondhand smoke and smoking during pregnancy. Smoking-related health problems cost the Iowa economy $794 million per year, including $235 million in direct costs to the state Medicaid program, paid by Iowa taxpayers.

Iowa can save thousands of lives and millions of dollars by increasing the price of cigarettes by 60 cents per pack. This year, the stakes are particularly high - if we do not raise additional revenue, we will not be able to fund a number of Iowa's health care priorities, such as health insurance for children, prescription drugs for seniors on fixed incomes, and in-home care for seniors and adults with disabilities.

Unless we raise the tobacco tax, 3,000 children risk losing their health insurance coverage from the Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa (Hawk-i) program, over 400 children ageing out of the foster care system risk losing health care, over 150,000 seniors and disabled adults risk losing funding to help pay for prescription drugs; over 13,600 children, seniors and persons with disabilities might not receive care in their own home or community; and almost 1,800 Iowans might not receive hospice services.

By raising the tobacco tax, we can encourage thousands of smokers to break the habit, and improve their health and quality of life as a result. We can also provide funding to smoking prevention efforts that will keep young people from ever becoming smokers in the first place.

Since JEL was founded, tobacco use among high school students has decreased by 11 percent. Thomas believes that Iowa can improve even further on this achievement. "Spending on tobacco prevention results in huge savings,"

Thomas said. "If JEL had more funding, we could do even better - it could be a staggering amount. We could reach more areas of the state and do more effective marketing to high school students to get this message out."

The Governor and I have proposed using $500,000 of the additional revenue from the tobacco tax increase to fund smoking prevention efforts. We need to give JEL and other efforts the resources they need to discourage teens from smoking and help adult smokers quit.

Polls show strong public support for raising the tobacco tax. On March 31, JEL and the American Cancer Society will hold a news conference on the steps of the State Capitol, asking lawmakers to raise the tobacco tax.

"The youth voice is very strong in Iowa. Groups like JEL and other organizations starting all over the country are empowering youth to lobby our public officials," Thomas said.

"Our elected officials need to stop ignoring the issue and realize that it's time to raise the tobacco tax."

Young people who would like to get involved with JEL can go to their website at www.JELIowa.org, or call the JEL Coordinator at 515-281-6225.

* Sally Pederson writes a monthly guest opinion on state issues for Pilot-Tribune readers.