The American Cancer Society released new data spotlighting smoking’s leading role in cancer-related deaths. According to the study, cigarettes are to blame for nearly 3 in 10 cancer deaths in the U.S. And the damaging effects go beyond just cancer.

Smoking is also responsible for nearly one-third of deaths due to coronary heart disease. Smoking also causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, among other ailments, according to the Surgeon General.

This information is disturbing but not surprising. What’s more startling is that, despite this knowledge, the parts of the country that need the most anti-smoking efforts still have the least amount of support in place.

Southern states (including Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama and Oklahoma) have a disproportionately higher number of cancer deaths whose smoke trail leads back to cigarettes. But virtually all of these states have weaker tobacco control policies and programs than the rest of the country.

Specifically, the states with the highest prevalence of smoking have the lowest anti-tobacco spending, the fewest restrictions on indoor smoking, and the lowest excise taxes on cigarettes. And only seven states out of fifty have Medicaid programs that provide comprehensive coverage for smoking cessation services.

We know that quitting smoking leads directly and immediately to improved health, and we know now that we can’t rely solely on national and state support to facilitate smoking cessation. This is a call to action for health plan sponsors to fill the missing gap.

Quit smoking programs are low-hanging fruit for wellness programs, especially since someone who quits smoking costs $1,000 less to care for per year than someone who continues smoking. Plan sponsors should not only promote these programs but incentivize them strategically. Newer research shows that a combination of carrot and stick may be a more effective approach to maximizing success.

No matter how they do it, there’s a lot at stake for health plan sponsors who can extinguish smoking in their population. And if they don’t tackle the problem, who will?

[Photo credit: QFamily on Flickr via Creative Commons.]