People with behavioral-health issues smoke at high rate; raising cigarette tax by $1 a pack would help them quit, advocates say

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- People with a behavioral-health disorder are more than twice as likely to smoke, and raising Kentucky's cigarette tax by $1 would help them quit, advocates at a rally in Frankfort said Feb. 8.

"Research shows us that when you increase the tobacco tax, even by 10 percent, you are going to see at least an 18 percent reduction in tobacco consumption among people with behavioral-health problems, including people with mental-health issues and substance-abuse disorders," Dr. Chizmuzo T.C. Okoli, an associate professor of nursing the University of Kentucky, said at the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow event.

Okoli, an expert on helping people with behavioral disorders quit smoking, said while the nation has seen significant decreases in its smoking rate since the 1960s, from 45 percent to 15 percent, those same gains haven't been made among those with behavioral-health disorders. He said a more concerted effort is needed to help them stop smoking.

Part of the problem in reducing smoking rates among such people is that the cigarette industry has targeted them, according to an anti-smoking group that released videos in August, citing internal tobacco-industry documents showing how cigarette makers purposely targeted people with mental illness.

Sheila Schuster, executive director of Advocacy Action Network, told the small crowd at the rally that 40 percent of people with behavioral-health or substance-use disorders are smokers, and research has found that they are likely to die about five years earlier than smokers without the disorders.

The coalition's news release on the rally noted that smoking kills 8,900 Kentuckians every year, and that nationwide it kills more than 200,000 people living with mental illness.

Sheila Schuster (sitting) and Ramona Johnson, CEO of
Bridgehaven at Smoking and Mental Health rally (KHN photo)
Ramona Johnson, CEO of Bridgehaven in Louisville, which serves people with psychiatric problems and helps them stop smoking, said their patients have even said they wished tobacco products would cost more.

"They tell us that they almost wish that cigarettes were more expensive because then they wouldn't have to make the decision," she said. "The decision would be made for them because it would be something that they can't afford."

Benjamin Jaggers, a former patient at Bridgehaven who is now a peer-support specialist with the organization, said he took part in a smoking-cessation program while he was a member there. "By using all the tools I learned about . . . I have now been smoke-free for over six months," he said to applause.

Jaggers said he supports raising the cigarette tax in Kentucky by $1. "If you raise the taxes on cigarettes, you might make people with disabilities think twice about buying cigarettes," he said. "That is one of the first steps to quitting, thinking twice about buying that pack of cigarettes."

He added that more resources are needed to help people who want to quit smoking, and suggested that money from the cigarette tax increase could be used to fund such programs. "Quitting smoking is tough," he said.

The rally was the third in a series sponsored by the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow, which comprises nearly 150 organizations who support efforts to decrease the smoking rate in the state, including raising the cigarette tax in Kentucky by $1, to $1.60.  The first rally focused on smoking and pregnancy and the second one on smoking and teens.

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