Raleigh, N.C. — Noting a resurgence in tobacco use among North Carolina teens, lawmakers said Wednesday that they want to resume state funding to prevention education programs.
"Tobacco use a pay now or pay later situation," said Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, noting that it is responsible for $3.81 billion in health costs and $4.24 billion in lost productivity each year.
House Bill 276, which Lambeth co-sponsors, would earmark $17 million from the $140 million annual payment the state receives as part of a national settlement with cigarette manufacturers to pay for tobacco prevention youth education programs offered by groups such as the North Carolina Alliance for Health and Youth Empowered Solutions.
"North Carolina once had award-winning tobacco use prevention programs, which were immensely successful in decreasing tobacco use among our youth. I know because I was one of those youth," said Morgan Wittman Gramann, executive director of the Alliance for Health.
State funding for those programs ended several years ago, a victim of budget cuts, Lambeth said.
North Carolina now ranks 45th nationwide in spending on tobacco use prevention, and it is last among tobacco-growing states, he said.
"The best way to deal with this is to prevent the use in the first place," said Rep. Gale Adcock, D-Wake, a nurse practitioner who has treated smokers. "It is not to go through the agony that they go through to get off the drug, nicotine, when they're in their 50s."
Surveys have shown more than 42,000 high school students and 8,000 middle school students statewide now use tobacco, and a majority have already tried to stop smoking, said Rep. Josh Dobson, R-McDowell.
"It's hard to accept that kids who are not even old enough to smoke are already trying to quit. It's better to prevent youth from ever starting using tobacco than to try to help them stop," Dobson said.
Andrea Boakye of Youth Empowered Solutions said the drop-off in education programs has coincided with the rise of e-cigarette use among youth, noting that "vaping" by North Carolina teens skyrocketed by nearly 900 percent between 2011 and 2015.
"My generation is being misinformed," Boakye said. "Vaping seen as healthier alternative to smoking when, in reality, it is not."