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State cancer groups ask for more money to promote smoking cessation programs


Thursday was the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout, an effort begun by anti-cancer groups nearly four decades ago to help people quit smoking. This year the American Cancer Society in New York used the day to call attention to a decline in state spending on anti-smoking programs.

Michael Burgess, with the American Cancer Society, says New York, once a leader in smoking cessation programs, has cut spending in half over the past several years. It’s declined from a high of $85 million annually, to $39.7 million in the current budget, which was cut more than five percent from last year. He says the funding drop corresponds with a leveling off of the number of New Yorkers who smoke, as well as a 40 percent decline in calls to a special quit hotline run by the state Department of Health.

“To back off from that, and let it just stagnate, I think is the wrong approach,” Burgess said.  

Burgess says spending a few million more dollars on programs to help people stop smoking saves an estimated $8 billion in health care costs, including $2 to $3 billion per year in costs to the state run Medicaid program that provides health coverage to the poor.

There are far fewer New Yorkers who smoke now than when the anti-smoking efforts began back in the 1970s, and numerous laws banning smoking indoors and in public spaces has also led to the decline. But Burgess says the rate of cigarette smoking remains high among certain populations, including low income earners, the young and those with mental health or substance abuse problems.

He says while the overall rate of smoking among New Yorkers is now at 18 percent, in some upstate rural counties more than 25 percent of adults smoke. Downstate, where New York City has pioneered some of the toughest anti-smoking laws in the nation, the percentages are much lower.

The Cancer Society has not endorsed New York City’s most recent effort, however. A new law raises the legal age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21 years of age. Burgess says his group wants to wait to see the effects first.

“Many people have already started by the time they are 18,” Burgess said. “We will have to see whether it makes a difference with the 18 to 21 year olds.”  

The group will be lobbying for more money for anti-smoking programs, and to boost media campaigns. Burgess says if there’s enough money for a tax cut, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has talked about, then there’s enough to spend more on smoking prevention.

The state Department of Health did not respond directly to the American Cancer Society’s criticisms. But, in a report by Department of Health staff on the successes of the state’s anti-smoking programs, the Cuomo administration seems to be going in a different direction from mass media campaigns and is trying to target populations where the smoking rate remains high. The report lists trying to curb cigarette company marketing toward teenagers, reducing secondhand smoke exposure to people living in public housing, and outlawing smoking in more outdoor venues as its goals.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.