The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Kansas spends over a billion dollars a year in healthcare costs directly linked to smoking. The state once had one of the nation’s lowest percentages of smokers, but decline hasn’t been as rapid as other states – it now ranks 25th in the nation.
On the façade of Noori’s Gas Station in Southeast Wichita, a sign advertises packs of Marlboro Reds for $5.19. Inside, the counter displays just about every kind of tobacco product you can think of. The convenience store also sells candy and pop, but owner Irshad Kazia says he’d be out of business if tobacco were removed from his store.
“You know, what would we do? If there’s no cigarettes here, who’s going to come over here? Buy the candy and pop? No, they’re not going to come,” he explains.
Kazia says he gets about 40 percent of his revenue from tobacco. His store is just a few hundred yards away from an elementary school; he says he is very careful not to sell to minors. But many anti-tobacco advocates would like to see a buffer zone - a 1000-foot tobacco-free perimeter surrounding schools.
A supermarket along Harry Street also sells tobacco products. There is no tobacco advertising other than the packs of cigarettes themselves, which sit behind the counter. This store is also only a short distance away from an elementary school.
Rosie Vacara is an employee here; she says tobacco isn’t a big part of what they do.
“It’s there when people want it, but it’s nothing we see a lot of profit from,” she says, adding that removing tobacco products wouldn’t really impact traffic into their store.
In 1970, TV and radio commercials featuring tobacco were banned from being broadcast. But despite that ruling, billions of dollars are still spent each year in advertising. The majority of this money is given directly to retailers so they can sell products at lower prices. It’s not advertising in the traditional sense, but it helped tobacco companies make about $35 billion in profit last year - even Kansas gets in on the revenue.
“We bring in 150 million dollars every year through tobacco related revenue and only invest one million of that in tobacco prevention,” says Jeff Willett of the Kansas Health Foundation. “So it does seem out of balance.”
Willett says the CDC recommends Kansas provide $28 million per year for tobacco prevention. He says the added funding would allow for aggressive, youth-oriented anti-tobacco campaigns in schools and give assistance to healthcare providers who are trying to help their patients quit.
Kurt Ribisl, executive director of Counter Tools, recently spoke at a local tobacco summit. His organization works to counter the negative effects of tobacco use in cities across the U.S. They help public health workers collect and organize data related to tobacco retailers – hoping to eventually use it to persuade local policy. They are now doing this data collection in Wichita.
“We’re finding that the tobacco retailers in a community are just not evenly distributed,” Ribisl explains. “We tend to see that there are more tobacco retailers in poor neighborhoods and in neighborhoods where you see a higher percentage of African American residents.”
They know this through an interactive map that pinpoints the tobacco retailers throughout the city. Allison Myers, who works with Ribisl, helped build the map.
“We also know that the people in those communities experience not only higher access to tobacco, but higher numbers of advertisements, steeper priced discounts, and often cheaper prices on menthol cigarettes,” she says. All of this is layered to create a situation where tobacco use can become really prevalent.”
In order to reduce the number of retailers in these neighborhoods, Myers suggests creating a buffer around schools. They would also like to see a limit on candy flavored tobacco products and a ban on coupons and discounts that make products more enticing.
Of the $150 million Kansas receives from tobacco revenue, local prevention measures only amount to the salary of one person - a tobacco educator for the Sedgwick County Health Department who helps run the Tobacco Free Wichita Coalition. She couldn’t comment for this story, but there are a number of people who volunteer for this organization, like Kathy Sikes.
“Tobacco control has always been interesting to me. My mother started smoking as a young teenage girl to stay thin, and because it was cool,” Sikes recounts.
She says kids and adults are still using tobacco for the same reasons her mother did. Sikes is tired of this trend. She’s been working on data collection with Counter Tools since October.
“One of the areas we are very concerned with is young people,” she says. “We’re going to be looking at specific neighborhoods, going to schools, going to parents…seeing the impact of having that many retailers in certain neighborhoods.”
Both the Tobacco Free Wichita Coalition and Counter Tools are in the early stages of their research. Sikes says Wichita does a good job of investigating underage tobacco sales and with keeping many public areas smoke free.
According to the CDC, states that make large investments in tobacco prevention see results.
“Kansas currently ranks 42nd in the nation in per-capita funding for tobacco prevention,” Jeff Willett of the Kansas Health Foundation says.
That’s not a number health officials are happy with.
Meanwhile, a decade-long tobacco control program in the State of New York is attributed with $4 billion in healthcare savings. And a youth smoking initiative in Florida has helped the state drastically cut the smoking rates in middle schools and high schools.
Health officials in Kansas are desperate to see these kinds of results in their own communities.
To read the CDC's "Best Practices For Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs," Click Here
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