My friend Braima Moiwai last week returned from a three-month visit to his tiny village home in Sierra Leone, West Africa.

“Yes,” he calmly answered while sitting on my porch before lighting the last cigarette in his box of American Spirits, when asked if he would stop smoking for $7,900. “Just give me the money first.”

A couple of days later, Robert Arrington was even more adamant about kicking the habit while standing in line at a West End convenience store.

“I’ll get rid of every pack I got for that kind of money,” Arrington said.

Maybe the nation’s public health officials might consider the billions of dollars saved in smoking-related illnesses and dole out a different kind of stimulus payments that will motivate folk to jump on the no-smoking bandwagon.

A study made public this month found that the average North Carolina smoker said a cash incentive of no less than $7,930 from a federal program would be incentive enough to make them quit cigarettes.

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The state’s smokers live where tobacco is king. Some of the nation’s biggest cigarette manufacturers, including R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard, were founded or are based in North Carolina. Still, the study found that North Carolina’s smokers are willing to stop at a significantly lower price that compared to a national average of $9,080, according to Oklahoma Smokes, which offers a nicotine-free, hemp cigarette alternative.

The company’s study, which surveyed 3,595 smokers to determine how much of a cash incentive would encourage them to curb their tobacco habit, found that smokers in Vermont “seem most eager to quit,” with the average coffin-nail puffer in the Granite State saying they would accept $1,694 to quit. By comparison, the average smoker in Hawaii said $16,500 is their quit price.

“While this might be an eye popping figure, it is worth noting that smoking-related illness in the United States costs more than $300 billion each year – as there are 34 million smokers, this works out to approximately $8,832 per smoker,” according to a press release.

The company’s press release notes that there was a time when lighting up a square  was considered cool—from “the burly, Western masculine ideal of the Marlboro Man, who lit up in between lassoing cattle,” to “the iconic James Dean,” shown puffing away in 1950s photographs and films. 

“On the silver screen,” the press release adds, “smoking cigarettes is a prominent feature: romantic scenes often inevitably end with couples enjoying a post-coital cigarette or three; busy newsrooms were once depicted in a fog of smoke; and nowadays, everyone from Brad Pitt to Scarlett Johansson has wielded a cigarette as part of their on-screen persona.” 

But oh what a difference a few decades makes, especially when it’s augmented by the deadly dangers of smoking and a late 1990s court settlement that ordered big tobacco companies to pay states $206 billion and comply with expansive advertising and marketing restrictions.

The release notes that the US spends more than $300 billion each year on illnesses linked to smoking. That total includes over $225 billion towards direct medical care for adults, and $156 billion towards lost productivity costs. 

The release further notes that second-hand smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, “of which hundreds are toxic and some carcinogenic.”

The release reports that second-hand smoke is the cause of almost 34,000 premature deaths due to heart disease among non-smokers in the US each year, as well as more than 7,300 lung cancer deaths among non-smokers in the US each year. 

“Essentially, non-smokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke are still inhaling many of the same carcinogenic substances and toxins as cigarette smokers themselves, which emphasizes the importance of specially designated smoking zones that are further away from general public exposure,” according to the release.

Nonetheless, “cigarette smoking is still the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the US, resulting in the death of over 480,000 people each year,” the Oklahoma Smokes release states. 

“Much research has been conducted into the harmful effects of cigarette smoking, leaving many smokers in a predicament,” according to the release. “Although the negative impacts of tobacco smoke are very much evident and it’s easy to wonder why so many smokers (an estimated 14 percent of American adults) continue the habit, many tobacco users find it difficult to quit, due to its addictive nature.”

The public at-large has responded to the health risks posed by smokers to themselves and others is well-documented: smokers can’t light up at the office, or restaurants, night-clubs, or airports, along with a host of other public places. Indeed, smokers often aren’t allowed to smoke in their own homes, and participants who use online dating sites routinely list smoking as a deal-breaker.

Accordingly, the study found that 15 percent of North Carolina smokers reported feeling “ostracized by society” because of their cigarette habit.

Oklahoma Smokes, with its nicotine-free alternative, certainly has a dog in the race. Still, the hemp stick manufacturer asks a relevant question: what would it take to convince smokers to ditch their habit—both for their own good as well as the greater health and wellbeing of society? 

“Last year, California proposed a contingency management plan to pay people to stay sober in the form of cash incentives or payments for every negative drug test over a certain period,” according to the release. “Could a similar strategy help convince tobacco users to stay smoke-free?”

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