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The disappearance of tobacco money | |

to me, Judith, kowm, sophia_chan, christine_wong, Lisa

The Virginian-Pilot
© December 26, 2012

The tobacco industry spends more than US$1 million an hour marketing and promoting its products, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office. The return on investment is gaspingly good – for every American who dies of a tobacco-related disease each year, two smokers age 26 and younger take up the addiction.

The key to the industry’s long-term success, of course, is to continue cultivating recruits, the sooner the better. Nearly 90 percent of new smokers try their first cigarette before age 18.

In 1998, when Virginia, North Carolina and 44 other states signed a historic legal settlement with the tobacco industry, officials nationwide pledged to devote a substantial portion of the revenue to smoking-cessation and -prevention programs. In particular, they wanted to reach teens.

The concept was simple: Americans had subsidized the public health costs associated with smoking for many decades, so it made sense to focus on curbing future costs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that states devote 15 percent of tobacco revenue to prevention programs, and at first, many states met or came close to that goal.

Florida, a leader in the legal battle against the industry, developed what was arguably the most effective campaign aimed at teens. In a series of edgy commercials, would-be smokers were reminded of the industry’s long history of manipulating people and facts.

The ads apparently appealed to the rebellious nature of teens; state health officials credited the campaign with major drops in smoking rates among middle and high school students. Nationally, a similar pattern was observed – the proportion of students in grades 9 through 12 who smoked fell to 21.9 percent in 2003 from 36.4 percent in 1997, according to the CDC.

Sadly, that’s about when spending on tobacco prevention peaked, according to an analysis by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The percentage of tobacco revenue spent on tobacco education programs rose a bit in 2008, but the focus has dwindled as recession-strapped states diverted money to other needs.

In the current fiscal year, states are expected to collect close to $26 billion from tobacco taxes and settlement funds but spend only 2 percent of it on prevention and cessation efforts.

North Carolina has eliminated funding for prevention programs. And Virginia ranks 31st nationally, spending just $8.4 million a year – well below the CDC’s recommendations.

In tough times, some worthy programs have to be trimmed. But many young smokers and their loved ones – as well as taxpayers who’ve historically subsidized the health care of ailing smokers – will pay dearly for those cuts.

Lawmakers in Virginia, North Carolina and other states need to revive programs started as part of the tobacco settlement. For taxpayers, the return on investment is significant.

In Washington state, officials found that they saved $5 in hospitalization costs for every $1 spent on education programs in the first 10 years of their efforts.

That’s a healthy sum. And there’s an even bigger return, one that can’t be measured in dollars and cents: Lives saved.

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