Louisiana, in common with every other state bar one, needs to put much more money into the war on smoking, a coalition of public health advocates adjures.
Do not hold your breath, because the states have had a great racket going since 1998, when they reached a settlement with the cigarette manufacturers. That settlement was supposed to reimburse them for the cost of medical treatment and finance programs to help smokers stop and prevent kids from starting.
The billions came pouring in, and the states may well have made a healthy profit on the deal. But they have devoted a mere pittance to preserving their citizens from the hazards of nicotine.
Perhaps they always intended to take the money and run, for, despite the worthy intentions proclaimed in the 1998 settlement, they never did promise to invest a specific percentage of the tobacco moolah in the cause of public health.
It was left to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine how much each state should put into prevention, but only North Dakota has followed the recommendation. Louisiana ranks in the middle of the chintzy scale, spending $7 million this year when the CDC figures $60 million would be more like it.
Last year, Louisiana took in $400 million from tobacco taxes and its share of the settlement with the companies. Meanwhile 23.5 percent of our adults, and 12.1 percent of our high school students, are smokers.
The settlement, which required the companies to pay the states $246 billion over the first 25 years, may have proven a bonanza for the states because its premise — that smokers are a drain on the public purse — was manifestly overstated. Sure the states spend money treating the victims of tobacco addiction, but there is an untold offset since, if the smoking habit didn’t kill people prematurely, they would remain available to contract other expensive diseases and keep drawing their social security. Factor in tax revenues, and, if the states suffered a pre-settlement net loss at all, it was clearly not to the extent on which the settlement was predicated.
Nobody was inclined to make that point, of course, because the angels are on the side of the anti-smokers. Besides, if the settlement constituted a shakedown of the cigarette manufacturers, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.
Regardless, once the settlement was reached, the states were clearly on a winner, with vast sums cascading into their general funds for politicians to spend at will. By now, they are heavily dependent on those revenues. Louisiana’s budget may be perpetually out of whack, but the recurring crises would have been even worse but for the tobacco fairy.
When incoming Gov. John Bel Edwards and the Legislature get to grappling with the budget, they will certainly not be looking for ways to divert spare cash, and it is unlikely that “smoking cessation,” even if they can bear to entertain such a hideous term, will be high in their thoughts. So far as Louisiana is concerned, the health coalition will be whistling in the wind.
Since most other states are guilty of the same breach of faith, our failure to cough up enough money to cut smoking rates will not cause much remorse around Baton Rouge. But it certainly should; the moral obligation that came with all that tobacco money would not be ruinous to honor.
The public health coalition reports that tobacco kills 7,200 people a year in Louisiana, and that “annual health care costs directly caused by smoking” total $1.89 billion.
Those are no doubt the kind of wild numbers that pressure groups are always inclined to bandy about, but nobody can doubt that sickness and death result when politicians grab money from the anti-smoking pot.
Cigarette companies, according to the public health coalition, have an annual marketing budget of $220 million in Louisiana, so, even if we were to spend at the rate recommended by the CDC, they would still have us seriously outgunned. But right now, it’s no contest at all.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.