Helping smokers quit not only saves lives, but also can help states save money as they struggle in tough economic times to keep their coffers filled, according to a cost-benefit analysis.
"For every dollar states spend on comprehensive smoking cessation programs they will see a return on their investment of $1.26," said Paul Billings of the American Lung Association.
"Sadly, smoking continues to kill more than 390,000 people each year in the United States, and until now little information has been available on the costs and benefits of smoking cessation programs," Billings said during a press briefing.
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The costs are staggering, according to the Penn State University researchers who conducted the study, adding up to an annual total of more than $300 billion.
The national average price for a pack of cigarettes in 2009 was $5.51, but the real cost to society of that pack of cigarettes is $18.05 -- more than three times the retail price -- when the costs for productivity loss, absenteeism, and smoking-related illness and death are factored in.
The study comes at a time when major smoking cessation benefits are being considered for inclusion in health care legislation.
"Congress has made a good start, but it didn't go far enough," Billings said.
For example, new federal laws require Medicaid to cover smoking cessation treatment only for pregnant women, he noted.
"Overall, there's lots of room for states to improve coverage of these treatments for people who are looking for help quitting," Jennifer Singleterry, also of the American Lung Association, said during the press briefing.
Only six states now provide comprehensive coverage of smoking cessation treatment for Medicaid recipients: Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.
And only seven currently require private insurance and employers to offer coverage: Colorado, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, and Rhode Island.
Seven medications are available to aid in smoking cessation, including various nicotine-replacement products and two non-nicotine medications available by prescription.
In addition, cessation counseling is recommended, whether done individually, in groups, or by phone.
Programs that have proven particularly effective include one in Massachusetts, where MassHealth offered its members help in quitting at low cost.
"The impact was dramatic, with more than 26 percent of smokers quitting," Singleterry said.
Other positive actions include recent legislative approval of funding smoking cessation treatments for Medicaid recipients in Kentucky -- a major tobacco producing state.
"More states need to follow these two examples," Singleterry said.
"This study adds a powerful economic argument for funding tobacco cessation programs, and represents a win-win situation," Billings concluded.