It's no secret that West Virginia has had a longstanding problem with smoking and related chronic disease, but is it getting better?
According to a report released Jan. 16 by the American Lung Association, that answer is yes and no.
In its 11th annual State of Tobacco Control report released Jan. 16, the association studied federal and state tobacco control policies.
Additionally, the report delved into each of West Virginia's 55 counties, assigning grades on the strength of regulations.
On the individual level, counties overall had passing grades. According to the report, 20 counties — which it notes is up from last year's 18 — received As, 19 earned Bs, 10 received Cs and six had Fs.
"The counties have all taken on the responsibilities that individuals in their particular towns and cities are not exposed to secondhand smoke," Deb Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic told The State Journal.
However, the state overall received a failing grade in every category — funding for tobacco prevention and control programs, smoke free air, cigarette taxes and cessation coverage.
To receive an A, smoking must be prohibited in almost all public places and workplaces, the association's news release notes. An F, meanwhile, indicates protection is "inadequate or non-existent."
"There is no statewide law that protects everyone," Brown said. "The report does look at statewide legislation throughout the entire country. That's why West Virginia got an F."
According to the West Virginia Division of Tobacco Prevention, the leading cause of death and disease in West Virginia stems from tobacco use.
The organization states "almost 4,000 West Virginia residents die each year from tobacco use and if current trends continue, over 40,000 more residents will die by the year 2020."
In a former interview with The State Journal, Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said tobacco usage could be a reason why West Virginia's life expectancy is lagging behind.
"The reason for this decline is pretty much lifestyle choices that includes obesity and tobacco — both of which we are ranked very high in the nation. As a result, we have a host of other diseases," he said.
According to data from statehealthfacts.org, more men than women in West Virginia attempted to quit in 2010. However, more men than women reported smoking, the data states.
Both genders smoked more than their national counterparts, however.
The association's report said tobacco costs the state $1.7 billion per year in health care costs and lost productivity.
"Although West Virginia receives $231 million in tobacco-related revenue annually, it only invests a meager 28 percent of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends should be spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs," the news release states.
So what can West Virginia do to improve its standing? Brown said the state should raise taxes on tobacco products other than cigarettes. The current cigarette tax rate is $0.55 per pack of 20, but Brown said the association hopes the state will increase that tax by $1.
"One of the proven things we have seen is whenever you increase the cost of tobacco products, younger people are deterred by that," she said. "Adults will rethink the use of those products, too."
She said West Virginia also should focus on prevention. Barriers such as co-pays or prior authorization also are problems, she said.
"West Virginia put in $5.8 million to work on prevention programs and they do a great job with that $5.8 million but there should be more money put in so that we can make sure young people who start smoking have access to the treatment and methods that they can have without any barriers."