State agencies try to combat tobacco

More than 1.5 million Georgians 18 and older smoke cigarettes. Another 315,000 adults in the state use some form of smokeless tobacco.

And tobacco use is increasing among Georgia teenagers.

Overall, smoking costs Georgians $1.8 billion in direct health care costs every year and $3.2 billion in lost productivity.

Two state agencies have been trying to chip away at those grim statistics.

Last week, the Georgia Department of Public Health announced that it will offer a four-week supply of free nicotine replacement therapy — in the form of patches and gum — to all uninsured Georgia tobacco users ages 18 and older.

The help is available thanks to a grant from the CDC.

Uninsured Georgians who use tobacco and are ready to quit can contact the Georgia Tobacco Quit Line at 1-877-270-STOP (7867) for the free help.

And the state Department of Community Health, through the state employees’ health plan, this year began covering prescription tobacco cessation products for the first time.

Georgia has a steep climb ahead on the tobacco issue.

On a tobacco prevention report card issued earlier this year, the state received F’s in three categories — tobacco prevention funding, tobacco taxes and smoking cessation coverage. The annual report from the American Lung Association gave Georgia only one passing grade — a C for state smoking restrictions, thanks to a 2005 law that prohibits lighting up in most indoor places.

Georgia received $600,000 for the tobacco quit line from the CDC, Public Health said last week.

“Tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in Georgia,” said Dr. Kimberly Redding, director of the Health Promotion & Disease Prevention section of the Department of Public Health. Every year in Georgia, she noted, more than 10,000 people die from tobacco-related illnesses.

The State Health Benefit Plan, which covers 663,000 schoolteachers, school personnel, state employees, retirees and dependents, charges an $80 per month surcharge if a member or a covered dependent uses tobacco.

But now the plan’s members, if they join the state’s cessation telephone coaching program, can get either prescription or over-the-counter medication to help them quit their habit. And eventually they can get the surcharge removed.

A Community Health spokeswoman said last week that smoking cessation is “the healthiest, most direct return on investment you can make in terms of wellness.’’

“Reducing tobacco usage will result in a healthier, more productive workforce and save the state money,’’ said Pam Keene, the DCH spokeswoman. “Non-smoking workers require fewer breaks during a day, generally use fewer sick days, and have lower long-term health costs than smokers.’’

Gov. Nathan Deal noted the tobacco problem when he declared Oct. 9 as Smoking Cessation Day in the state.

June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association in Georgia, said cessation help is vitally needed, including more funding for the quit line. “We know smokers quit several times before they quit for good,’’ Deen said.

“We’re glad there is a little more assistance our there for people to quit smoking.’’

She added that raising the state’s tobacco tax would cut the smoking rates. Efforts to raise the tax have met no success in the Legislature in recent years. Here’s a recent GHN article on the state’s low tobacco tax.