Commentary: Smoke-free Philly: It's a Good Start

Philadelphia is finally getting a breath of fresh air. However, in a guest column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey says much more needs to be done to reduce tobacco's toll in the city and throughout Pennsylvania.

Starting today, we can all breathe a little easier now that Philadelphia is no longer a smoke-filled exception in the northeast corridor. Mayor Street and the City Council have put the health of Philadelphians first, and the City of Brotherly Love has joined 16 states and hundreds of cities across the country with strong smoke-free workplace laws that include restaurants and bars.

As a physician and head of a philanthropy that's been out front in the fight against tobacco use and its devastating consequences for more than a generation, I can't imagine lighting up and doing that to myself—or the people around me. I have seen firsthand the terrible harm caused by exposure to the 4,000 chemicals and at least 69 carcinogens in secondhand smoke. At the same time, I've seen the health benefits of smoke-free laws that protect workers from breathing secondhand smoke.

This is why I am so pleased that practically all public places in Philadelphia finally are going to be smoke-free, thanks to the clean indoor air law that goes into effect today. I expect more people will be going out in Philadelphia, too. As jazz lovers, our family is thrilled that we no longer have to travel to Manhattan for a smoke-free dinner and night of music.

This is a huge victory for the health of our families and our communities. But I'm still holding my breath because much needs to be done to reduce tobacco's toll in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.

The evidence shows us that reducing death and disease from tobacco use and exposure works best when three forces are at play equally:

  1. We need to tax cigarettes high enough to make smokers (especially kids) think twice about what it costs to smoke. Pennsylvania smokers are taxed about only half ($1.35/pack) what their neighbors in New Jersey are ($2.58/pack).
  2. Pennsylvania should follow Philadelphia's lead and join the 16 states that have enacted strong, statewide laws that protect non-smokers from secondhand smoke.
  3. Finally, we must spend enough on both tobacco prevention and programs to help smokers quit, so we are taking care of the health of our children and the parents and loved ones who mentor and nurture them.

Currently, Pennsylvania spends less than half the minimum recommended by the CDC for tobacco prevention and cessation. The CDC says Pennsylvania should be spending $65 million on prevention; the state spends only $30.3 million. That's only 2.2 percent of the $1.4 billion in tobacco-generated revenue the state will collect this year in tobacco settlement payments and tobacco taxes.

As a result, we undermine many of our other gains. The numbers tell the story. About 24 percent of Pennsylvania adults and 23 percent of our high school students still smoke. Worse, more than 19,000 Pennsylvania kids under 18 become new daily smokers each year. If they don't quit soon, nearly one-third of them will die prematurely.

The fiscal bottom line is just as staggering: Smoking costs Pennsylvania more than $5 billion a year in health care costs. With that $5 billion a year we could cover all of Pennsylvania's uninsured, make health care affordable for everyone and dramatically improve the health and quality of life of all our communities.

With our new smoke-free law, Philadelphia is no longer a smoke-filled exception to the growing list of states and cities across the country with strong smoke-free workplace laws. Now Pennsylvania needs to follow suit. Smoke-free air, higher prices for tobacco products and funding prevention and quit smoking programs must become a top national priority…then we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.