Outside of a 4th Avenue bus stop in Huntington, Ronni Stone is smoking a cigarette. She started when she was 15 years old and has been smoking for 35 years. She says she’s tried to quit about four times but was only able to last for about a week before the withdrawal symptoms made her light up again.
“I’ve done it for so long and it’s just that craving,” she said. “I hate how it smells, I hate how it looks. I’m the only smoker in my family, so it’s a really bad. It’s an addiction is what it is, it’s an addiction to nicotine.”
The West Virginia legislature has been considering a bill that would outlaw smoking in the car with children under the age of 16 present. But passing even moderate laws to limit tobacco use in the state are difficult sells.
For Stone, the idea is a no brainer. “They shouldn’t have to breathe what our habits are,” she said firmly.
While sponsors of the bill say has a lot of support from groups such as the March of Dimes, American Heart Association and American Lung Association, other members of the Legislature - particularly those in the Liberty Caucus, oppose the bill saying it limits individual freedom.
“I’m one of those that believe people have the right to make decisions for themselves but what I would like to see is for a dramatic decline in smoking,” said Senator Tom Takubo. Takubo is a pulmonologist and the lead sponsor of the bill. “I would like to see children growing up without shortness of breath and asthma because of their parents’ choice.”
West Virginia has been getting a lot of attention for the opioid crisis recently. But research shows that tobacco kills more than 4 times as many West Virginians as opioids.
“You know, I just read an article to the Senate that showed or compared just five minutes in a car with someone smoking is the equivalent of the damage and the inhalational injury to the lung that a firefighter would experience 4-8 hours of continuous firefighting in a large wildfire,” said Takubo.
Takubo, a Republican, says he understands the liberty caucus perspective, but thinks it goes too far in this case. He said he doesn’t know many smokers who like the fact that they smoke and that many have tried to quit, but couldn’t.
“It is very addictive,” Takubo said. “It’s more addictive than heroin in animal models.”
At Marshall University, Dr. Brandon Henderson is studying the neuroscience of nicotine addiction.
“So we look at specific neurons and regions of the brain that are altered by drugs of abuse,” said Henderson.
He said he hopes their research will provide information for future regulations that may help prevent another generation of lifelong smokers.
“So when you compare different drugs of abuse so cocaine, amphetamines and then compare them to nicotine, there really is a similar change in the amount of dopamine that’s released,” he explained.
Henderson said one of the main differences between nicotine and opioids is that tobacco is a legal drug. Although it has many health impacts, they take a long time to show up. Finally, unlike opioid abuse, culturally smoking is both prevalent and accepted in much of West Virginia.
But changing the culture is difficult. Bills like Takubo’s aim to start small by limiting the exposure of children to secondhand smoke.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.