UCSF Study: Smokers Quit and Health Care Costs Drop -- in Next Year

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When smoking rates decline, health care spending declines, too, and fast. An analysis from researchers at UC San Francisco finds that if 10 percent of smokers nationwide quit, it would save a whopping $63 billion in national health care costs the next year.

Stan Glantz, a professor of medicine at UCSF and director of its Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, was co-author of the study, which found that a 10 percent decline in both prevalence of smoking and per-person cigarette consumption would save one percent of total health care cost.

"That doesn't sound like much," said Glantz, "but the amount of money that our society spends on health care costs is gigantic, so if you can cut that by a percent, that's a big effect."

Research has long shown that smoking cessation saves money in the long run, but this study focused on year-over-year savings.

UCSF scientists conducted a state-by-state comparison of smoking prevalence and health care costs, compared to the national smoking rate.

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In California the smoking rate is 11-12 percent compared to 17 percent nationally. The state's smoking rate is lower, Glantz said, because of California's long history of anti-smoking campaigns and clean indoor air policies (which were strengthened last week when Gov. Jerry Brown signed five anti-tobacco bills into law. )

In addition, Californians who do smoke are smoking less than the national average, Glantz said. "When you put those together, California's saving about $15 billion a year in medical costs, every year."

California's annual health care spending, public and private, was about $230 billion in 2009, according to the California HealthCare Foundation.

While the risks for some diseases, like smoking-related cancers, develop over years, risks for other disease drop quickly after smoking cessation. The risk of heart attack and stroke drop by "about half in the first year after smoking cessation," the authors write.

It's all those heart attacks and strokes that don't happen, and other health risks avoided, such as asthma attacks, that save money. Those savings "grow with time," Glantz said, "by the reduced costs of not having to take care of the ongoing chronic illnesses which are generated" by smoking.

The researchers also calculated the excess cost for states that have a smoking rate above the national average.

The study was published in Plos Medicine.

The analysis has crucial policy implications, Glantz believes, since state lawmakers are often focused on balancing next year's budget.

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"What we're showing is it's not 20 years from now," he said, "it's next year that you start to see these (savings), and of course they grow with time."

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