Anti-Tobacco Groups Lobby D.C. Council

Barrington M. Salmon | 3/28/2012, 9:48 a.m.

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."