At last weeks Health 2.0 Conference Maggie Mahar, author of HealthBeatBlog got more than a little feisty about Al Waxman’s suggestion that we make people with bad health behaviors pay more. She said that 95% of smokers had some form of mental illness, and therefore we were punishing the mentally ill. Really? Read on for Maggie’s explanation (lifted at her request from a comment elsewhere).—Matthew Holt
According to the New England Journal of Medicine,
“The link between smoking and anxiety also helps explain why smoking is so strongly correlated with mental illness. “smoking rates have been reported to be over 80 percent among persons suffering from schizophrenia, 50 to 60 percent among persons suffering from depression, 55 to 80 percent among alcoholics, and 50 to 66 percent among those with [other] substance-abuse problems.”
Poverty is highly correlated with smoking because poverty is stressful. U.S. soldiers also smoke in greater numbers than the population as a whole–even if they didn’t smoke before joining the army The NEJM reports:
“Serving in the military is a risk factor for smoking even for those who did not start smoking prior to the age of 18. Smoking is the number-one health problem for vets,” says Dr. Steven Schroeder, former President of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where he focused on smoking cessation. “And reports are showing that many US soldiers serving in Iraq are turning to smoking to relieve their stress.”
At the Health 2.0 conference, Al Waxman asked the audience how many thought that smokers should be “penalized” for smoking, presumably by paying more for insurance. I pointed out that the vast majority of adult smokers are poor; many suffer from some form of mental illness.Do we really want to punish people who are living in poverty and are mentally ill?
How about soldiers returning from Iraq who have become addicted to smoking and, in many cases are also suffering from post-traumatic stress? Should we “penalize” them? The irony,of course, is that because the majority of adult smokers are poor they can’t pay higher insurance premiums. The original Senate Finance bill would charge smokers twice as much for insurance, but the majority will qualify for full or partial subsidies, so taxpayers will wind up paying the “penalty.” More importantly, rather than punishing smokers we could help them stop smoking. We actually know how to help people quit.
“If we want to cut the number of premature deaths, we might put more emphasis on smoking cessation clinics,” says Dr. Steve Schroeder. who directs the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at UCSF. “Smoking shortens smokers’ lives by 10 to 15 years, and those last few years can be a miserable combination of severe breathlessness and pain.”
44.5 million Americans still smoke.
“Smoking is increasingly concentrated in the lower socioeconomic classes and among those with mental illness or problems with substance abuse,” Schroeder adds. “Understanding why they smoke and how to help them quit should be a key national research priority. Given the effects of smoking on health, the relative inattention to tobacco by those federal and state agencies charged with protecting the public health is baffling and disappointing.”
We don’t put money into smoking cessation for two reasons: first, smoking cessation clinics aren’t profitable. Secondly, as smoking becomes concentrated among the poor, those with money and power have lost interest in the problem. Yet Kaiser Permanente of Northern California has shown that we can help smokers. When Kaiser implemented a multi-system approach to help smokers quit, Schroeder reports that
“the smoking rate dropped from 12.2% to 9.2% in just 3 years. Of the current 44.5 million smokers, 70% claim they would like to quit. Assuming that one half of those 31 million potential nonsmokers will die because of smoking, that translates into 15.5 million potentially preventable premature deaths. Merely increasing the baseline quit rate from the current 2.5% of smokers to 10% — a rate seen in placebo groups in most published trials of the new cessation drugs — would prevent 1,170,000 premature deaths. No other medical or public health intervention approaches this degree of impact. And we already have the tools to accomplish it.”
Rather than focusing solely on medicine and medical care, Schroeder is committed to strategies that would improve public health. In the U.S. there is a sharp division between the two, with public health always the poor relation.
“It’s harder, because there’s stigma attached to it,” Schroeder explains. “There’s a sense among some that if a large portion of the nation’s population is obese or sedentary, drinks or smokes too much, or uses illegal drugs, that’s their own fault or their own business.We often get a double-standard question.”
Critics who object to investing more in programs that could help drug addicts and alcoholics, ask: Well, don’t many of these people relapse?
“Yes, of course,” Schroeder responds. “But is it worth treating pancreatic cancer, which has a 5 percent survival rate, at most? Yes. So the odds of successfully treating drug abuse or alcoholism are actually better than in many of the serious illnesses that society, without question, wants us to treat.”
Schroeder is right: When allocating health care dollars, we eagerly spend far more on cutting-edge drugs that might give a cancer patient an extra five months than on drug rehab clinics that could make the difference between dying at 28 and living to 68”. But Schroeder fears that we are going to continue to focus on cutting edge acute care–while ignoring public health:
“It is arguable that the status quo is an accurate expression of the national political will,” he writes, ” …a relentless search for better health among the middle and upper classes. The pursuit is also evident in how we consistently outspend all other countries in the use of alternative medicines and cosmetic surgeries and in how frequently health ‘cures’ and ‘scares’ are featured in the popular media. The result is that only when the middle class feels threatened by external menaces (e.g., secondhand tobacco smoke, bioterrorism, and airplane exposure to multidrug-resistant tuberculosis) will it embrace public health measures. In contrast, our investment in improving population health — whether judged on the basis of support for research, insurance coverage, or government-sponsored public health activities — is anemic.”
Maggie Mahar is an award winning journalist and author. A frequent contributor to THCB, her work has appeared in the New York Times, Barron’s and Institutional Investor. She is the author of “Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Why Healthcare Costs So Much,” an examination of the economic forces driving the health care system. A fellow at the Century Foundation, Maggie is also the author the increasingly influential HealthBeat blog, one of our favorite health care reads, where this piece first appeared.