The war against the ravages of tobacco smoke has been waged for years. While there have been major victories, we now stand at the brink of a potentially serious defeat.
In 1998, Pennsylvania’s attorney general settled a lawsuit with the country’s major tobacco companies, recovering some of the financial burden imposed by the industry’s predatory practices. Big tobacco was made to pay $11.3 billion over 20 years.
In 2001, the state General Assembly passed Act 77, which allocated that money to various health care concerns. Almost all of the funds went to offset the costs of gaps in insurance and into supporting research. Only a small portion was dedicated to preventing tobacco use among children and helping adults stop smoking.
Despite the minimal allocations, Pennsylvania’s smoking cessation and prevention programs have been extremely successful. In 2001, an estimated 24 percent of Pennsylvania’s adults used tobacco. Estimates as recent as July suggest that number is down to 18 percent.
This achievement was made possible, in large part, by the extraordinary efforts of nonprofit community organizations, keeping costs down while bringing services to the neighborhoods where they’re needed most. This has saved lives, reduced the burden of suffering, and has put millions of dollars in reduced health care costs back into our economy each year.
The current budget proposal cuts this investment in half. The proposed 50 percent cut in funding will devastate smoking cessation and prevention programs.
We know what happens when tobacco cessation and prevention funds are drastically cut. California and Massachusetts did just that, and the cuts translated directly into higher smoking rates, especially among youth. There were also increases in smoking-related diseases and higher health care costs.
A study released by the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards showed that the funding cuts were followed by a substantial increase in illegal sales of tobacco products to children because of reductions in enforcement efforts within local municipalities. The cost will be great; fewer smokers will quit and more youth will start, creating an even larger burden on an already overburdened health care system.
We understand that in these economic times hard choices must be made. But our elected officials must also be aware of the long-term consequences of their choices.
What is particularly frustrating is that there are some good solutions that will enhance public health, increase revenues and continue Pennsylvania’s cost-effective investment in smoking cessation and prevention. The most obvious is to tax smokeless tobacco products and cigars.
Pennsylvania is the only state that does not tax smokeless tobacco products and, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, is the only state other than Florida that does not tax cigars.
A modest tax on smokeless tobacco products and cigars would easily replace the lost funding for cessation and prevention and have the added benefit of protecting public health. Furthermore, polls have shown that seven of every 10 Pennsylvanians support such a tax.
Pennsylvania has already achieved much with modest funding from the tobacco settlement funds. The proposed budget before the legislature that does not include a tax on smokeless tobacco products and cigars and drastically cuts smoking cessation and prevention programs will only add to the continuing health care crisis in the state.
Frank Leone is director of the Comprehensive Smoking Treatment Program at the University of Pennsylvania; and Joseph O. Minott is executive director of the Clean Air Council.