Illinois sees drop in smoking; tobacco settlement money used for other needs

PEORIA —

Tamerra Henderson-Hightower is almost Richard Pryor-esque when she talks about the painful pockets of her life. She pulls laughter out of the darkest spaces.

It’s not necessarily when she talks about the years of child abuse by her father, the years of drug addiction after an uncle introduced her to cocaine, even more years – nine times in and out of treatment – trying to kick the habit.

“Don’t get me wrong, I can tell you funny drug stories,” she says. “But the cigarette stories? They’re ridiculous.”

Henderson-Hightower, 46, of Bartonville, remembers the date she quit using drugs, Sept. 17, 2006. She doesn’t remember the day she finally quit smoking. “I just know I quit.”

By her logic, the day she stopped doing drugs and alcohol should have been the day she stopped smoking cigarettes. Not so.

“I would do anything for drugs and I would do anything for a cigarette but it took a year longer to quit smoking,” she says. “For me, that said cigarettes were much harder to quit.”

The Great American Smokeout, the American Cancer Society’s 36th annual event, came and went last Thursday with barely a mention. That doesn’t mean anti-smoking advocates and public health experts don’t have something to say.

“I’d have to say we didn’t see as much publicity about it as we have in the past,” says Kelli Evans, regional director of health initiatives for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. She suspects part of the reason is Illinois’ day she stopped smoking cigarettes. Not so.

“I would do anything for drugs and I would do anything for a cigarette but it took a year longer to quit smoking,” she says. “For me, that said cigarettes were much harder to quit.”

The Great American Smokeout, the American Cancer Society’s 36th annual event, came and went last Thursday with barely a mention. That doesn’t mean anti-smoking advocates and public health experts don’t have something to say.

“I’d have to say we didn’t see as much publicity about it as we have in the past,” says Kelli Evans, regional director of health initiatives for the local chapter of the American Cancer Society. She suspects part of the reason is Illinois’ smoking rates have declined steadily since the ban on smoking in public places took effect in 2008.

For the most part, so have the dollars from the tobacco settlement with big tobacco companies, money originally intended to fund comprehensive tobacco prevention programs, says Greg Chance, director of Peoria County Health Department.

He points to a 2010 report that ranks Illinois 35th among states in the amount of money from the tobacco settlement that goes toward fighting tobacco use.

The state gets about $300 million a year from the settlement. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends states spend $157 million on anti-smoking programs. In fiscal year 2011, Illinois spent roughly $9.5 million, Chance says.

“Unfortunately, especially in recent years, we’re seeing the tobacco settlement dollars being used for a variety of other needs,” he says.

That means, cutbacks in smoking prevention programs throughout the state. For instance, the health department reduced staff and smoking prevention programs in the schools two years ago. The waiting list for free nicotine patches from last year’s state-funded program is so long that the health department will probably not be able to add new people to the program when the money arrives.

“People are already calling, but we already have about 70 people on the waiting list,” says Brian Tun, director of health promotions.

The CDC notes the number of former smokers in the United States has outpaced the number of current smokers since 2002. But, according to a CDC analysis of 10 years of survey data, almost 70 percent of current smokers want to quit.

The percentage of African-Americans who want to quit is even higher, in fact the highest among all racial, ethnic, age, education levels, economic statuses categorized in the 2010 health survey – 75.9 percent, compared to 68.8 percent overall. Yet, black people had one of the lowest quit rates. Of people who reported quitting in the past year, the percentage of African-Americans was 3.3 percent, compared to 6.2 percent overall. Consequently, smoking-related illnesses are the No. 1 cause of death in black communities.

One theory for the discrepancy in quit rates is that black people are more likely to smoke mentholated cigarettes, which increases nicotine dependence.

Henderson-Hightower, who is black, says her brand was Kool Milds, a menthol cigarette. She started smoking cigarettes and marijuana when she was 13, she says. By 21, she was using cocaine.

Though marijuana is often mentioned as a gateway to other illegal drugs, a new National Institutes of Health study (NIH) suggests nicotine use may be a more potent gateway to cocaine addiction.

Mice exposed to nicotine first, then to cocaine, were more likely to show addictive characteristics. However, mice exposed to cocaine first, then nicotine, weren’t more likely to use nicotine.

“If our findings in mice apply to humans, a decrease in smoking rates in young people would be expected to lead to a decrease in cocaine addiction,” the authors, led by Dr. Amir Levine of Columbia University, wrote.

And if their findings in mice apply to humans, it might also help Henderson-Hightower understand why she had a much tougher time kicking cigarettes than cocaine.

Seeing a hypnotist amounted to $70 up in smoke. She lit up two hours later.

Then she’d buy a pack and give it away, promising herself she would only smoke one from that pack. She’d keep her promise, then immediately buy another pack.

Don’t mention the nicotine patch.

She came to refer to her stint using the patch as “patch on, patch off.” She’d take it off to smoke, then put it back on. Soon, she realized she was smoking more than she was wearing the patch.

Henderson-Hightower became much more involved in her Christian faith about the same time she started doing the “patch on, patch off” routine.

She was leading a church support group, Bondage No More, for people who had gone through similar life experiences as hers. But she was also the member of the church choir who would go outside for a cigarette as soon as she left the choir stand.

“I was blurring the message,” she says now.

Not knowing what else to do, she started praying. Daily, she’d get on her knees and recite a Bible verse from the chapter of Mark, asking for the mountain to be removed. The mountain, in her case, was cigarettes. She’s not sure of the exact date. She just knows one day she realized she hadn’t had a cigarette in awhile.

She was living in a non-smoking building, which helped. A year after she quit, the state enacted the ban on smoking in public places, which helped her not to relapse, she says.

Life has not been a party since she quit. She has dealt with health problems, job problems, family issues.

“It’s the kind of stuff that drives people to smoke,” she says. “For me to start smoking again over problems? I think that would cause more problems.”

Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or padams@pjstar.com.

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