Jennifer Whitten and 11 members of the city's anti-tobacco lobby spent several hours Friday morning making the rounds at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest.
The group's mission this day focused on persuading council members to restore funding to programs that would fight the resurgence of tobacco use, particularly among young people. For Whitten, the first joint lobby day on tobacco control is professional and personal.
"For us at the American Heart Association, the No.1 killer in the nation is cardiovascular disease. Tobacco use is the No. 1 reason. We can eliminate cardiovascular disease – it's preventable. Just quit smoking."
"My dad had quadruple bypass surgery last year. He started smoking at 12. I harped on it all my life. His surgeon told him he has to quit smoking. [Doing that] will add years to his life. It's personal."
Whitten and her peers decided to lobby elected officials because the body spent no money on tobacco prevention in FY 2012. The group represented the American Lung Association; the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; the American Stroke Association; the DC Cancer Consortium; and the American Cancer Society.
The District received an 'F' in the most recent State of Tobacco Control Report Card because it funded no tobacco control programs.
"D.C. is one of five states spending no money. It speaks to priorities. Healthcare costs are so enormous. A small investment could have a tremendous impact," said Stuart Berlow, of the DC Cancer Consortium.
According to the American Lung Association, health-related costs borne by the District because of smoking is $626 million a year. An estimated 15 percent of adults in the city are smokers and for high school students, the smoking rate is 10.6 percent. Annual healthcare expenditures in the District caused by tobacco use totaled $243 million and lost productivity costs to the city totaled $232 million.
The group wasn't able to speak directly to council members because they were otherwise occupied with the release of the 2013 budget. But they were invited into the inner sanctums of the respective officials where they pled their case to legislative staffers. City officials could have paid for prevention programs from tobacco settlement money and tax revenues. Their decision not to do that left them ranked 50th in the nation. At the same time, the tobacco industry spent $13.5 million in advertising and other promotions last year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the District of Columbia spend $10.5 million annually to prevent and reduce tobacco use among District residents in its Best Practices for Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs. Investing in tobacco control programs has proven effective at helping to keep kids off of tobacco and encouraging current smokers to quit, Center staff said.
And a new report released by the U.S. Surgeon General, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, notes that "the failure of states to adequately invest in tobacco control has resulted in three million new youth and young adult smokers, a third of whom will ultimately die from their addiction. The devastating toll that tobacco use has on the District is no different."
So in their visits to the offices of lawmakers including Michael Brown (I-At-Large), David Catania (I-At-Large), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), the group asked for the council members to commit to the $10.5 million figure.
"Well, I hope we get a significant amount because this is a significant problem," said Patricia Tompkins, of the Black Nurses Association of Greater Washington. "We have to keep the word out there. This is still a scourge that affects children [and] spouses. We're also aware of the growing number of young people smoking."
"I don't know if residents know that none of this tax money is going into prevention programs. We recognize that the city has overwhelming needs, but millions are poured into healthcare which in the long run we could be saving with prevention."
Christina Marsh, 24, could barely contain her displeasure.
"D.C. has one of the highest taxes on cigarettes but it's unacceptable that none of that money is going toward prevention," said Marsh, who is a researcher at the National Institutes of Health. "Our current state is not okay."
The District's tax on cigarettes is $2.50 a pack – 10th in the nation – which is funneled into the general fund.
Courtney Tyne, who participated as a private citizen and not on behalf of her employer, said although neither she nor her parents smoked, the more she's learned about the deleterious effects of tobacco use, the more she's redoubled her efforts to educate the community.
"The tobacco industry spends millions on young people and 88 percent of smokers start before age 18," the D.C. resident told Evans staffer Kevin Stogner. "Really what we're here for is for Mr. Evans to establish tobacco sustainability money for marketing and outreach. There is no local funding for tobacco programs in D.C. despite the enormous impact. Thirteen and a half million is spent in the District by the tobacco industry and as a resident, I really find that unacceptable. We're allowing them to target kids and craft the message."
Bonita Pennino, chair of the Policy Committee for the DC Tobacco Free Coalition and director of advocacy for the American Cancer Society, said tobacco companies stay busy developing killer products to lure young people into the smoking fold.
"They have bubble-gum-flavored snuff and loose tobacco and Snooze, in very colorful tins with pouches of tobacco that you stick in your cheek," she said. "I met a man in Maryland who lost the entire bottom half of his face and his tongue was split in half. He started smoking when he was young. [People who do this] are exposed to all kinds of cancers of the mouth, tongue, esophagus [and] digestive tract."
"Tobacco companies are making less expensive tobacco products and kids are price sensitive. It only takes one or two of these products to get addicted. If we can get the funding, tobacco control experts can come together and put together a comprehensive program targeted at kids."
Pennino said the District's lack of investment is even more shocking when compared to the FY 2012 tax revenues the city collected.
"According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, these revenues combined are expected to bring in more than $75 million this year alone," she said. "Additionally, D.C. is one of only four states failing to contribute local dollars to fund tobacco prevention. The other three states are Nevada, New Hampshire, and Ohio."
Riana Buford said she remains concerned about the type of advertising directed at the Lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender (LBGT) communities.
"LBGTs smoke from 35 to 200 percent more than the heterosexual population," she explained. "Youth start because of the stigma at home. They start at the same time as other young people but for different reasons."
Buford, 28, who works with the Mautner Project locally, said tobacco companies developed a SCUM campaign which targeted homeless and gay people in San Francisco.
"It was named sub-cultural urban marketing or SCUM. In the past, some groups would accept tobacco money to pay for their programs but D.C. Pride is smoke-free and doesn't accept tobacco money."
Pennino and others in the group said they hope their entreaties sway council members.
"Investing in these lifesaving programs will prevent kids from starting to use tobacco products and will help reduce the number of D.C. residents who die each year from tobacco use," said Pennino. "The District has made progress in tobacco control; now is not the time to back down."