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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Clearing the air on youth smoking

Telegraph Editorial

In the summer of 2011, The Telegraph began publishing an occasional series of stories under the heading “Cuts and Consequences,” which were intended to put a human face on the impact of state budget cuts on state programs during the 2011-12 budget cycle.

Human services agencies, hospitals and colleges took the brunt of these cuts by the Republican-controlled Legislature, resulting in fewer services for children with disabilities, home health care for the disabled, drug and alcohol treatment, and legal assistance to the poor, to name a few. ...

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In the summer of 2011, The Telegraph began publishing an occasional series of stories under the heading “Cuts and Consequences,” which were intended to put a human face on the impact of state budget cuts on state programs during the 2011-12 budget cycle.

Human services agencies, hospitals and colleges took the brunt of these cuts by the Republican-controlled Legislature, resulting in fewer services for children with disabilities, home health care for the disabled, drug and alcohol treatment, and legal assistance to the poor, to name a few.

Now, it looks like we can add one more negative consequence to the list: a significant jump in the percentage of New Hampshire retail outlets that sold tobacco products to minors in 2012.

Last month, the state Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Services issued its annual report that concluded tobacco sales to New Hampshire youth rose 5.4 percentage points last year – from 7.8 percent in 2011 to 13.2 in 2012.

The percentage of stores found to have sold tobacco products to minors varied from county to county, ranging from a low of 0 percent in Merrimack County (none of 25 outlets checked) to a high of 55.6 percent in Coos County (five of nine). Hillsborough County registered slightly under the state average at 10.5 percent (eight of 76).

And among the stated reasons for the sizeable year-over-year jump statewide?

State budget cuts that led to fewer investigators and fewer inspections than in previous years, according to state officials.

“This year, with the declining number of inspections, we may have gotten a little lax on that,” said Robert O’Hannon, a program specialist in the bureau and the former coordinator of a federal program aimed at restricting the sale of tobacco products to youth.

The so-called Synar program – named after its sponsor, former U.S. Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., in 1992 – requires states to adopt and enforce laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to individuals under the age of 18. States that exceed the 20-percent mark run the risk of losing up to 40 percent of their federal grant funding.

Even with the increase, New Hampshire didn’t come close to that level, but the significance of that dramatic rise was not lost on state health officials.

“While the results of the checks were well under the federal Synar requirement of 20 percent, this does raise concerns,” Joe Harding, director of the bureau, said in a statement. “Research shows that lower tobacco use by youth also decreases the chance that they will use drugs or alcohol.”

Data compiled from the New Hampshire Youth Risk Behavior Survey found a strong link between those who smoke and those who use other controlled substances. Based on a survey of 27,000 students in 2007, for example, 27 out of 28 high school students who smoked acknowledged drinking alcohol, too.

And while this year’s Synar report makes no specific mention of the state Legislature’s ill-conceived decision in 2011 to reduce the state cigarette tax by 10 cents to $1.68 a pack – proponents erroneously argued such a move actually would boost state revenues – studies have shown that higher cigarette prices can serve as a deterrent to youth smoking. In fact, one study found that a 10 percent hike in cigarette prices can reduce youth smoking by roughly 7 percent.

All the more reason why Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan should follow through on her campaign pledge to reinstate the 10-cent tax in the new legislative session.