After slow start, we can still be tobacco leader

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 5, 2000

It's been more than a year since the landmark $246 billion settlement between the tobacco industry and the states, and a recent study by the CAMPAIGN FOR TOBACCO-FREE KIDS and the American Heart Association indicates that the states are failing to allocate enough settlement funds for tobacco prevention programs. Almost all states, including Alabama are not providing enough new funding for truly comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation programs, according to the report.

The group recognized Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Washington as being leaders as to their commitments to tobacco prevention programs. Only 29 states have finalized their plans for dealing with the tobacco money.

Alabama is recognized by the group as one of five states that have dealt with their allocations, but have provided less than 25 percent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for an effective program. Texas, Rhode Island, Louisiana and Connecticut are in that category, too.

Five other states were cited as having made commitments that are for less than one-third of the CDC recommendation – Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Virginia and new Hampshire.

Alabama, which shared in the 46-state Master Settlement Agreement after a much publicized fight between then Gov. Fob James and Attorney General Bill Pryor and then Lt. Gov. Siegelman, still has an opportunity to be a leader among states utilizing the tobacco settlement funds for prevention.

The state will receive $3.17 billion over the next 25 years, and has been hindered by additional lawsuits that have been filed. The Children First program will receive $60 million during fiscal year 2000, and the Medicaid program will receive up to $40 million during the same time. $2 million has been tagged for services to the elderly and $7 million for economic development. Nowhere in those allocations is there a significant commitment to tobacco control or education – and that was the point of the lawsuit on the first place. Hopefully state leaders will take note of what other states are doing – or aren't doing – and move forward in future years to providing the funding for programs specifically address smoking – particularly among the state's young population.

If we can get control of the smokers before the addiction to cigarettes does, the state can win the battle that kills thousands of Alabamians every year. There's substantial evidence in the report that programs are paying dividends in states where adequate funding has been committed to tobacco control. Massachusetts' smoking rate among high school students declined from 35.7 percent to 30.3 percent from 1995 to 1999 after a program was launched in 1993 to address teen smoking.

Encouraging our state leaders to do the right thing and allocate more of the settlement money to tobacco control in future years begins in places like Greenville, Ala. This will be a topic for discussion for the next 25 years, since states will receive payments from the tobacco companies for that period.

We must convince our legislative leaders to make a significant commitment to tobacco education and tobacco control, and that has to happen one letter and one phone call at a time. Make your voice heard.

Eric Bishop is publisher of the Greenville Advocate. His column appears on Saturday.