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Smoking prevention saves millions with fewer hospital visits

Washington state anti-smoking measures are working, according to state officials. They claim a new study shows ten years of tobacco education efforts prevented 36,000 smoking-related hospitalizations.

Washington state says it has evidence its anti-tobacco program is not only saving lives but saving money for taxpayers.  That comes as the program faces near elimination because of budget cuts. 

If you remember the big lawsuit against the tobacco companies in the 1990’s – and the millions of dollars states got in the settlement -- that’s where this story starts.

"Ten years worth of work is paying off," said Washington Secretary of Health Mary Selecky.

Selecky  was new on the job when the anti-tobacco money started flowing in.  Washington adopted every approach it could find. 

Now, a new study commissioned by Selecky's office, shows preventive efforts are working.   That's hard to prove.  But, with ten years of data, researchers could compare what happened in the ten years before introducing all these programs. 

They asked, What if the smoking rate had stayed the same as it was in 1999, instead of going down by about 6%?  How many people would have been hospitalized with heart disease and stroke? 

The difference they found adds up to about 36,000 hospitalizations in a decade – that’s what was prevented. 

"This is exactly the kind of success we strive for everyday in our prevention programs, and strive to replicate," said Dr. Jeffrey Harris of the University of Washington, who advises the health department.

The study has not been peer reviewed yet, although it has been submited to an academic journal.  It was conducted by outside researchers in Oregon.  It comes as those same anti-smoking programs are getting trimmed to the bone. 

The main service, telephone counseling (the Quit-Line) combined with a nicotine patch, will be limited primarily to people with private insurance starting next summer,  even though most of the remaining smokers in the state are lower income and lack insurance. 

Keith Seinfeld has been KPLU’s Health & Science Reporter since 2001, and prior to that covered the Environment beat. He’s been a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.