Posted: February 27, 2013 at 11:24 pm

By Carly Runquist, Zach Cumberland and Alyssa Casalino

When Dan Stern was 14, his father, from Princeton, West Virginia, died a horrible death from lung cancer after years of smoking cigarettes all day, every day.  Stern swore he would never take up the habit himself.

“My dad smoked cigarettes all day, every day,” says Stern, now a 19-year-old West Virginia University sophomore. “It was a disgusting habit.””

His father’s habit was part of the norm in West Virginia, where 28.6 percent of all adults smoke cigarettes, ranking the state second only to Kentucky in the highest smoking rate in the nation.  Tobacco-related diseases are the leading cause of death in West Virginia, accounting for more than 4,000 deaths annually, according to the WV Division of Tobacco Prevention.  

“People don’t realize that smoking tobacco harms nearly every organ in the body and not just your lungs,” says Carol Stanley, a board member for the West Virginia Division of Tobacco Prevention.

Stanley and others attribute the state’s high rate of tobacco use to the fact that it is a mostly rural state with many residents of lower socioeconomic status and little education. Tobacco use is more common in rural areas than cities. And the less educated and poorer people are, the more likely they are to smoke, according to West Virginia’s Geri Dino.

The fact that West Virginia has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation is also a contributing factor, says Geri Dino, Director of the West Virginia Prevention Research Center. The current tax on cigarettes is 55 cents a pack, well below the national average of $1.48 a pack, according to the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free West Virginia.

Dino notes that the tobacco industry gives a lot of money to politicians in the state, including Senator Joe Manchin, who received $13,000 in campaign funds in 2012, according to an Action on Smoking and Health report. A conservative group funded by the tobacco industry gave the new Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrissey $1.6 million, helping him to defeat the Democratic incumbent Darrell McGraw in 2012.

“The tobacco industry supports politicians and there’s a really strong resistance to setting higher tobacco taxes,” Dino says. “If the citizens created an outcry for more tobacco taxes then maybe it would happen, but there just isn’t a mind set in this state that tobacco needs to be controlled.”

Yet the economic toll tobacco takes on lives in West Virginia is enormous. The state spends over $900 million a year in treating the health problems and diseases caused by smoking, according to the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health.

Adults ages 25-34 have the highest smoking rate, but smoking is also prevalent among teenagers in West Virginia, according to Dino. West Virginia has the highest rate of smoking during pregnancy in the country (29.3 percent), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The leading cause of death and disease in West Virginia continues to be tobacco use with high prevalence for both smoking and spit tobacco.  Almost 4,000 West Virginia residents die each year from tobacco use and, if current trends continue, over 40,000 more residents will die by the year 2020 because of their addiction to tobacco.

The leading cause of death in West Virginia continues to be tobacco use. Almost 4,000 West Virginia residents die each year from tobacco use.

Smoking is extremely addictive, and one of the main goals of tobacco prevention programs is to reach the youth before they become addicted. The American Lung Association partnered with researchers at the West Virginia Prevention Research Center at West Virginia University to create a program called ‘Not-On-Tobacco, which allows teens who want to quit smoking to participate in 10 sessions that help them develop the skills and confidence they need to quit.  The program has a 21 percent quit rate, which Dino says, is higher than any similar program. 

However, some West Virginia teens are not ready to quit.  “I’ve heard about the ‘Not-On-Tobacco’ program, but I can’t get myself to do it, I don’t think I’m ready to quit,” said 18-year-old Shaun Martin, a Morgantown High School student. 

Martin notes that his mother is also a smoker and he thinks he picked it up from her example.

“She couldn’t really ever say anything to me because she smokes all the time,” Martin says.

The 'Not-on-Tobacco' program aims to help 'reduce teen smoking' in each community.

The ‘Not-on-Tobacco’ program, developed at West Virginia University, aims to help reduce teen smoking.

Within three months of quitting cigarette use, circulation and lung function improve, according to  

Dan Stern drew a different lesson from his father’s smoking. He says his father’s diagnosis of lung cancer devastated his family.

“I miss my Dad every day,”  says , “It’s definitely a lesson to me, because I know first-hand what smoking can do to you.”