MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - "I was a pack-and-a-half a day minimum," recalls Katherine Hert -- a Montgomery wife and mother who is celebrating five years tobacco-free.
Katherine says she quit for the sake of her children. And she did it with the help of a state-sponsored counseling program.
"I didn't want to disappoint this random woman on the other end of the email because she was so supportive!" Katherine says.
That program -- known Quit Now Alabama -- has a very high success rate. It offers free counseling and nicotine replacement therapy to anyone who requests it. But there's very little money for advertising, so many smokers do not realize that it is available.
Katherine says she only knew about the program because she works for the agency the administers it -- the state department of public health.
"Luckily, I am a state employee," she said.
The health department's Dr. Jim McVay says additional funding from the state would go a long way toward reducing Alabama's smoking rate. Not only would it pay for better advertising of the Quit Line, it also could fund grants and and educational initiatives in schools, churches and civic organizations.
And depending on who you ask, there money within the state budget to pay for those programs, but it's not currently appropriated for them.
TOBACCO SETTLEMENT MONEY
Alabama receives more than $267 million annually from the tobacco companies as part of a lawsuit settlement. Other states use much of their settlement money on anti-smoking programs. But Alabama does not. Our legislature uses most of the money to fund other areas of state government.
"In the rest of the country, they are seeing a gradual improvement in the smoking rate, fewer people smoking," McVay explained. "But we are not seeing that in Alabama."
According to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Cancer Society and other organizations, states that spend more money on anti-smoking programs have more success.
Florida, for example, has seen its teen smoking rate reduced to 7%. Florida spends approximately $70 million dollars on anti-smoking initiatives per year.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that Alabama spend $55 million dollars on anti-smoking programs. But the state legislature only appropriates $1.5 million annually.
That's less funding than in any of our neighboring states. And of the those states, Alabama has the highest rate of teen smokers at 18%.
For more state-by-state comparisons, click here to see the full report.
THE TOBACCO TAX
"There is a budgeting crisis in Alabama," says the American Cancer Society's Ginny Campbell.
Campbell serves as government relations director in Alabama. She advocates for spending additional money now because it would save the state money in the future on healthcare costs. But she admits there simply is not enough revenue in state government to fund every program of every agency.
That's why the American Cancer Society advocates higher tobacco taxes.
The Alabama legislature has already raised taxes on cigarettes, but the ACS advocates for even higher taxes. The legislature did not raise taxes on other tobacco products, like chewing tobacco and mini-cigars. Both are now becoming more popular among young people. The ACS says higher taxes on these products could help raise significant state revenue.
"And we know that the higher the cost of tobacco products, the harder it is for kids to start smoking," Campbell says.
QUIT NOW ALABAMA
If you or someone who know wants to stop smoking, you can reach the Alabama Quit Line at 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Or go to the program's website.