Study says if Ky. cut its smoking rate to the national average, it could save $1.7 billion in health-care costs the very next year

Illustration from University of California-San Francisco

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

If Kentucky could cut its smoking rate to the national average, it would save an estimated $1.7 billion on healthcare the following year, a study says.

Kentucky’s smoking rate is 26 percent, and the national average is 18 percent.

The study at the University of California-San Francisco estimates that a 10 percent decline in the national rate would save $63 billion the next year in health-care costs.

“What it adds to our knowledge is that we can save money quickly,” Ellen Hahn, University of Kentucky nursing professor and director of its smoke-free policy center, told Kentucky Health News. “We are not talking 18 to 20 years down the road. … If we reduced our smoking rate at least 10 percent, we would see dramatic reductions in health-care cost in just one year.”

The study also found that smoking makes Kentucky spend $399 more per person per year on health care than it would if the state’s rate equaled the national rate. That was the highest figure of any state.

Conversely, low rates of smoking save Utah and California, respectively, $465 and $416 per person per year compared to what they would spend if their smoking rates were the national rate.

“Regions that have implemented public policies to reduce smoking have substantially lower medical costs,” the study’s authors said in a news release. “Likewise, those that have failed to implement tobacco control policies have higher medical costs.”

Lexington’s smoking rates dropped 32 percent in just one year after it enacted its smoking ban, which amounted to an estimated $21 million in smoking-related healthcare costs savings, according to a University of Kentucky study led by Hahn and published in the journal Preventive Medicine.


The UCSF study, published in PLOS Medicine, looked at health-care spending in each state and the District of Columbia from 1992 to 2009, and measured the year-to-year relationship between changes in smoking behavior and changes in medical costs.

Many studies have shown that smoking bans and other smoke-free policies decrease smoking rates, reduce smoking prevalence among workers and the general population, and keep youth from starting to smoke.

These have been some of the arguments for a statewide smoking ban, but efforts to pass one have stalled because new Republican Gov. Matt Bevin opposes a statewide ban and says smoke-free policies should be a local decision.

Bevin won big budget cuts from the legislature to set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for shoring up the state’s pension systems, but the study hasn’t made the administration look at a smoking ban as a source of savings. A ban passed the House last year but died in the Senate.

Asked how this study might affect the administration’s position on a statewide smoking ban, Doug Hogan, acting communications director for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said in an e-mail, “Smoking bans are a local issue, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.” Bevin’s office and Senate President Robert Stivers did not respond to requests for comment.

Hogan said the cabinet is committed to helping people quit smoking: “Education and proper policy incentives are critical tools that the state can use and as our commonwealth crafts its Medicaid wavier, it is looking very closely at ways to best incentivize smoking cessation to improve health and decrease cost to the commonwealth.”

Dr. Ellen Hahn

Hahn said, “Kentucky has the dubious honor of leading the nation in cigarette smoking, and we have for many years. … it is a major driver of health-care cost. And in a climate where we are trying to save every dollar … I think that we should pay attention to this study because what it really says is that we can save a boatload of money if we help people quit and we can save it quickly.”

Other possible tobacco-control measures include raising cigarette taxes, anti-smoking advertising campaigns and better access to smoking-cessation programs. Hahn said the state gets some money from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the tobacco master settlement agreement for prevention and cessation efforts, but the state needs to do more.

“We spend very little on the things that we know work, like helping people quit smoking, like doing widespread media campaigns on television, radio and print,” she said. “We just don’t do that in our state. We never have. In fact, we spend very little, about 8 percent of what the CDC say we should.”

The study says significant health-care savings could occur so quickly because the risks for smoke-related diseases decreases rapidly once a smoker quits.

“For example, the risk of heart attack and stroke drop by approximately half in the first year after the smoker quits, and the risk of having a low-birth-weight infant due to smoking almost entirely disappears if a pregnant woman quits smoking during the first trimester,” says the report.

“These findings show that state and national policies that reduce smoking not only will improve health, but can be a key part of health care cost containment even in the short run,” co-author Stanton Glantz, director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, said in the release.

Hahn said, “People don’t realize how effective quitting smoking really is, how much money it really saves. So that is the value of this paper. It is a wake-up call for those of us doing this tobacco control work and for elected officials who are trying to save money and redirect funds and shore up the economic health of Kentucky. … Doing all we can to reduce smoking saves lives and money. What’s better than that?”

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