Tobacco hot line for uninsured is snuffed out

State and local health officials worry about smoking rates rising

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Over the past 10 years, the state-funded tobacco quit-line answered the calls of 160,000 uninsured Washington smokers who wanted to kick the habit.

Now it is the latest casualty in the state’s reduced tobacco prevention program.

The telephone support service offered free counseling, informational materials and nicotine replacement therapy for anyone who called the toll-free number, 800-QUIT-NOW. But as of July 1, only callers with private insurance or Medicaid can receive assistance.

Those with no insurance are told their names and contact information will be kept on file in case the Washington State Department of Health is ever able to revive the program, said Tim Church, a spokesman for the health department.

“It’s sad for us because we know that it will affect the smoking rate in the state,” Church said. “That’s frustrating for public health, and its frustrating for people who want to quit but can’t find help.”

Nearly 1,500 Clark County residents called the quit-line last year.

State and local health officials worry eliminating the program will cause smoking rates to creep back up.

Since the program began in 2000, adult smoking rates have dropped statewide by about a third, according to the state health department. In 2010, the adult smoking rate in the state was 14.8 percent, down from 15.3 percent in 2009.

Clark County mirrors the state trend. In 1999, the local smoking rate was about 26 percent. In 2009, the rate had dropped to 14.4 percent, according to state figures.

County health officials are also troubled by smoking rates among 12th-graders, which are just starting to level off but remain higher than adult rates, said Theresa Cross, health educator for the county’s chronic disease prevention program.

This year, 20.1 percent of Clark County 12th-graders said they smoke cigarettes, according to state figures.

“Smoking and other unhealthy behaviors don’t lessen in tough economic times,” Cross said. “At the time when we most need services for people, we don’t have the money to provide them.”

The tobacco quit-line helped more than 160,000 uninsured Washington residents since operators first picked up the phone in 2000. The line cost about $2 million per year to operate, Church said.

The quit-line was the final piece of the state-funded tobacco prevention program eliminated due to budget cuts.

Since 2009, funding for the comprehensive program has dwindled from $27 million a year to its elimination this year, Church said. The cuts mean the state will no longer provide funding for school-based prevention programs or pass on state dollars to local health departments.

This year, the only state prevention work will be compliance checks at local tobacco retailers to make sure products aren’t sold to minors. Federal dollars are used to pay for those checks, Church said.

In Clark County, the state cuts have reduced funding for tobacco prevention from $302,000 at its height in 2005 to just $9,800 this year for compliance checks, Cross said.

The cuts resulted in three layoffs of county prevention staff and caused the county to halt the work of three task forces focused on tobacco prevention, cessation and smoke-free housing, Cross said.

The state cuts won’t mean the end of all preventive work in the county, though.

Cross is working with property managers to implement smoke-free housing policies in multiunit complexes and partnering with existing programs to provide education and information about secondhand smoke. In addition, the county recently implemented a tobacco-free policy on the Center for Community Health campus, Cross said.

“Tobacco is still the No. 1 killer in our country,” she said. “Clark County Public Health is still committed to a preventive program even though we don’t have state funding.”

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://www.facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.