When a smoker calls 1-800-QUIT-NOW from Washington or Connecticut or several other states, a phone rings in a Seattle call center. Ironically, starting Aug. 1, most of the quit line’s services will no longer be available to uninsured smokers here in Washington.
The cut comes as the $1.7 million the state spends on the quit line has been eliminated from the state budget. The quit line, which is contracted to Seattle-based Alere Wellbeing, currently offers counseling and nicotine-replacement therapy. Services for Washington residents without insurance will be limited to a single phone call, starting next month.
Insurance from state exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act next year is required to provide some coverage of tobacco cessation, but it is unclear how comprehensive that coverage will be. Meanwhile, public-health officials see this as the latest in a string of cuts to anti-tobacco initiatives in the state.
“This is the last shoe to drop,” said Tim Church, director of communications for the Washington State Department of Health.
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The state used to be a leader in tobacco prevention and cessation, spending $27 million annually on prevention programs in schools, advertising campaigns and the quit line. Since 2010, nearly all of the budget and programs have been eliminated, with the quit line as the latest casualty.
“It’s sad because we’ve been a really progressive and aggressive state when it comes to tobacco,” added Church.
Adult smoking has dropped 30 percent in Washington since 2000, when the quit line and other anti-tobacco initiatives began.
At 17.4 percent, the adult smoking rate in Washington is one of the lowest in the country.
The quit line receives more than 10,000 calls per year. People who use quitlines are twice as likely to quit successfully, according to a study on California’s quit line.
However, recent cuts in anti-tobacco funding prompted the American Lung Association to give the state an F in both tobacco prevention and cessation. The quit line was eliminated in 2011 and reinstated a year later.
The latest budget allocates no state money for the quit line, leaving only $300,000 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reduced services. After Aug. 1, uninsured smokers in Washington will receive advice during an initial phone call. The counseling, checkups and nicotine patches or gum will no longer be available for those without health insurance.
Smokers with insurance that provides cessation coverage, such as Medicaid, can continue to use the quit line for all services.
Washington’s high tobacco taxes make the quit-line cuts especially upsetting, said Terry Reid, who headed the health department’s tobacco initiatives until 2011 and is now co-chairman of the Tobacco-Free Alliance of Pierce County. At $3.025 per pack, Washington’s cigarette tax is the fifth-highest in the nation.
“Without [these services], the state is missing an opportunity to not only use revenue in the right way, but also to save money in the long run,” said Reid, referring to the health-care savings from quitting. The estimated 329,000 former smokers in Washington will save the state $3 billion in future health-care costs, according to the health department.
Heidi Henson, who runs tobacco support groups, receives several calls a month from smokers referred by the quit line. For the poor and uninsured, she said, the quit line is especially important because they may have difficulty getting to support groups.
“People seem to think that the problem with tobacco has been handled,” said Henson. “The problem is not over. Tobacco companies are not going to fade away.”
Sarah Zhang: 206-464-2195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On twitter @sarahzhang