FRIDAY, April 19, 2019 -- Just a 1% decrease in the number of Medicaid recipients who smoke could save the insurance program billions of dollars a year, a new study suggests.
Over one year, that small decline in smoking and its associated health harms would lead to $2.6 billion in total Medicaid savings the following year and millions for each state, researchers found.
"While 14% of all adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes, 24.5% of adult Medicaid recipients smoke," said study author Stanton Glantz, of the University of California, San Francisco. He's director of its Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
"This suggests that an investment in reducing smoking in this population could be associated with a reduction in Medicaid costs in the short run," Glantz added in a university news release.
Half the states would save $25 million or more, with California reaping $630.2 million (if the smoking rate fell from 15.5% to 14.5%), the study found. At the low end, South Dakota could save $2.5 million (if the rate fell from 41% to 40%).
It's well known that reducing smoking is associated with reduced health costs, but it's commonly assumed that it takes years to see these savings, Glantz said.
"While this is true for some diseases, such as cancer, other health risks such as heart attacks, lung disease and pregnancy complications respond quickly to changes in smoking behavior. So reducing the prevalence of smoking would be an excellent short-term investment in the physical health of smokers and the fiscal health of the Medicaid system," he said.
The study examined only the potential savings from reducing the total number of smokers who receive Medicaid, the publicly funded health insurance program for the poor. But even if each smoker just smoked less, there would be additional reductions in health care costs, according to Glantz.
"Because some health risks linked with smoking, such as cancer, can take years to fully manifest, these savings would be likely to grow with each passing year," he said.
Total Medicaid costs in 2017 were $577 billion, he noted.
The study was published online April 12 in JAMA Network Open.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines the health risks of smoking and tobacco.