The revelation that there is a correlation between higher rates of both poverty and tobacco use isn’t relatively new. But new statistics coming out of my own county, Oneida, in northern Wisconsin — and surrounding counties — are frightening.
WJFW TV-12, a Northwoods Wisconsin station based out of Rhinelander, Wis., the county seat, explains in a March 28, 2014 news story that six counties have smoking rates at or above 22 percent: Langlade, Lincoln, Oneida, Forest, Price, and Vilas.
Out of that list, Langlade County has the highest rates of both poverty and tobacco use. The county includes the municipalities of Ackley, Ainsworth, Town of Antigo, Elcho, Evergreen, Langlade, Neva, Norwood, Parrish, Peck, Polar, Price, Rolling, Summit, Uphan, Vilas, Wolf River, White Lake and City of Antigo.
(Note: Overall, the state experienced a 2 percent hike in poverty in 2013 across most household sizes. You can see the Wisconsin Budget Project for tables of statistics for further details.)
Frankly, anyone could do simple math to confirm that smoking can burn through a significant portion of a family’s budget. According to the American Lung Association, the average smoker smokes 15 cigarettes each day. GumAuctions.com reports that the average price per pack in Wisconsin currently is $7.13.
A Wisconsin smoker that goes through 15 cigarettes each day will spend $160 a month or $1,925 just on smokes throughout a year.
To put that in perspective, the 2013 Federal Poverty Income Guidelines place a family of three making $19,530 annually at the poverty level. Now, revisiting that aforementioned statistic that a Wisconsin smoker can expect to pay $1,925 in a year while using 15 cigarettes a day: that’s already adds up to over 10 percent of the family budget used on cigarettes.
Remember: that’s if just one person in the household is smoking at the average rate!
Why do poorer people, like those in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, continue to smoke?
The reigning theory explained by No-Smoke.org and a number of other websites and associations, points to lack of education.
Those big tobacco companies are known for specifically targeting certain lower socioeconomic populations, because they can hook them with free products. And, once you’re puffing their addictive products, it’s a hard, hard road to recovery. If they can hook you as young person, they may have you as a source of their income for life.
Perhaps another reason the problem isn’t curbed is because poor residents don’t have greater options for health care through their jobs. “A person who is living in poverty doesn’t necessarily always have all of the medical – even though we do say you have access to medical care, I think that many people are marginalized and they feel like they maybe don’t,” Langlade County Public Health Nursing Supervisor Karen Hegranes said in the March WJFW TV-12 news piece.
Sure, at the beginning of 2014, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) came into the picture. Depending on individual states, there may be a premium surcharge for smokers in the Exchanges. Wisconsin hasn’t banned smoking surcharges yet. (Since 39 percent of adult smokers are already in poverty and more are just above poverty level, they may already be eligible for Medicaid, so the surcharge doesn’t apply.) The Affordable Care Act and the Smokers’ Penalty article on HealthBeatBlog.com by author, journalist and former Yale professor, Maggie Maher, states, “Meanwhile, new research by the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services indicates that including comprehensive tobacco cessation benefits in Medicaid insurance coverage can result in substantial savings for Medicaid. The study found that every dollar spent on tobacco cessation program costs resulted in an average program savings of $3.12, which represents a $2.12 return on investment.”
That reminds me of a time back in early 2013 when organizations like the American Lung Association weren’t impressed when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker outlines his proposal in the state’s budget to charge an extra $50 per month in health insurance to any state employee who smoked. These organizations pointed out this would have an adverse effect: the extra money for health insurance would deter poor people from having health insurance all together. (Later, Walker vetoed the plan.)
Also, according to WJFW TV 12, lack of government funds means that Langlade County doesn’t have a public health worker on-hand to work exclusively on the anti-smoking issues. But, Lincoln, Oneida, Forest, Price and Vilas counties, as well as nearby Florence County, are banding together to create the Northwoods Tobacco-Free Coalition.
It’d be preposterous to discount the fact that some people — no matter their socioeconomic status — just don’t desire to quit and won’t make the effort. However, the sad fact is that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2011, 68.9 percent of adult smokers desired to stop and 42.7 percent had tried to quit in the previous year.
Regardless, poverty can’t be blamed exclusively for the smoking problem. There is still hope for any Wisconsin resident who honestly desires to stop smoking, whether they live in the six northern counties with the highest ratios of poverty to smoking rates or elsewhere.
And, repairing that household budget will be an added benefit to quitting.
Here are just some of the free resources available to Wisconsin (and even some for U.S.) residents:
Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention and Poverty Network (WTPPN). Check out their official website or Facebook page. They explain that “The Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention & Poverty Network’s primary goal is to help organizations move beyond their mission and incorporate tobacco prevention interventions into their already established services. Network members come from all sectors: the faith community, correctional and job training facilities, health care and treatment centers, shelters and food pantries, and public health agencies.”
The Wisconsin Tobacco QuitLine, offered by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, offers free medications and free live phone coaching at 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Visit the Quitter In You, brought to you by the American Lung Association and Wellpoint, where you can also find information on helping a smoker quit.
Wisconsin State Journal