Supporters say increasing cigarette tax could help break link between smoking and mental illness

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Kentuckians living with mental illness have high smoking rates, and often require stronger doses of psychiatric medications and live shorter lives as a result. But quitting smoking can improve their lives, and an increase in the state excise tax on tobacco products would be particularly effective in reducing smoking among this group, according to the Coalition for a Smoke-Free Tomorrow.

More than 40 percent of those who smoke in the United States also have alcohol, drug or mental disorders,[i] said Coalition partners at a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort this Thursday. Research shows that increasing the price of cigarettes can significantly reduce smoking among this, especially price-sensitive population. In fact, a 10 percent price increase would result in an 18.2 percent decline in smoking among persons living with a mental illness or a substance use disorder.

“Stopping smoking not only reduces the risk for heart disease, lung disease and cancer, it also improves symptoms of mental illnesses, helping them live a better quality of life,” said Dr. Chizmuzo T.C. Okoli, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Nursing.

The Coalition, which comprises nearly 150 organizations in Kentucky, supports an increase in Kentucky’s excise tax of at least $1/pack on cigarettes with parallel increases in the taxes on other tobacco products. Every year, smoking kills 8,900 Kentuckians, more than six times the number who died in 2016 in the Commonwealth’s opioid crisis. Nationwide, smoking kills more than 200,000 persons living with mental illness every year.[ii]

That’s why smoking cessation is an integral part of Bridgehaven’s therapy program, said Ramona Johnson, CEO of Bridgehaven in Louisville, which serves individuals (referred to as members) with psychiatric problems.

“Smoking increases the breakdown of psychiatric medications in the body, so individuals with mental disorders often smoke more to get the same results. Their addiction is very strong and hard to break,” Johnson said. “On the flip side, when they are able to quit, they can often get the same treatment results from lower doses of their medications. Raising the tobacco tax is an evidence-based measure to improve their chances of quitting successfully.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people with mental illness or substance use disorders who smoke typically die about five years earlier than smokers without these disorders.[iii] According to the CDC, “nicotine has mood-altering effects that can temporarily mask the negative symptoms of mental illness, putting people with mental illness at higher risk for cigarette use and addiction.”

“We know that several specific populations stand to gain significantly greater health benefits from a dollar more in the cigarette tax, and those include youth, pregnant women, those living on low incomes, and people with substance use and mental health disorders,” said Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Advocacy Action Network. “The tobacco tax increase is a health policy measure – it will improve health, reduce health care costs and save Kentucky taxpayers literally billions of dollars over the decades to come.”

The Coalition also supports other policy measures that will reduce smoking, including smoke-free indoor workplace laws and increased access to tobacco cessation programs.
Companies and organizations that would like to join the Coalition and help support the cigarette tax increase can do so on the Coalition’s website. For more information, contact Angela Koch, akoch@healthy-ky.org, 502-326-2583.

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