January 16, 2007
Preventing Tobacco Deaths: It’s Time to Act
by John Andrews, MCHC
What would happen if a group of unprincipled conspirators were to launch an assault upon the people of Massachusetts that resulted in 9000 fatalities? One would hope that the Governor would take immediate action and that our legislators would move promptly to provide all resources needed to defend our citizens. The very last thing we would expect would be for the Governor to look the other way and our legislators to establish financial relationships with the assailants and modify the state budget to weaken our defenses.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario. Each year 9000 people in Massachusetts are being killed by tobacco-related diseases. Each year, 13,000 young people in Massachusetts take up smoking. And our legislators, rather than doing everything in their power to stop the deaths, have moved to dismantle the Massachusetts anti-smoking program that was once the envy of the nation. Since 2003, funding for anti-smoking programs in Massachusetts has been cut over 90%. Massachusetts is now spending only 14% of what the Center for Disease Control recommends for smoking prevention. In January 2003, the American Lung Association gave Massachusetts an “F” rating for its underfunding of tobacco prevention programs.
Why would legislators let this happen? Among the factors that must be considered is the amount of money tobacco interests donate to the campaign accounts of legislators. According to a report issued by Common Cause, lobbyists affiliated with tobacco donated $527,688 to Massachusetts candidates for elected office between 1997 and 2002. They also spent $5.3 million in lobbying activities. This money is carefully targeted to influence both legislation, state budgets, and law enforcement.
The foremost excuse offered for cuts to tobacco prevention is “There simply isn’t enough money.” But a look at the financial implications shows the flimsy nature of this claim. Massachusetts takes in half a billion dollars each year in cigarette excise taxes and roughly $300 million a year from tobacco settlement funds that were intended to combat tobacco use and provide treatment services for smokers. By devoting even 5% of these funds to smoking prevention, Massachusetts could once again have a first class program protecting our youth. Instead, as Common Cause notes, “Funds have been and continue to be diverted to uses that are entirely unrelated to tobacco prevention.”
Furthermore, smoking costs the state of Massachusetts roughly $4.3 billion each year in health care expenses and lost productivity. On average, each household has to contribute $609 to pay for tobacco damages. That adds up to real money. Yet legislators say that we can only afford to spend $1 per household on tobacco prevention.
Public-interest groups such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids waged a spirited battle a few years ago to save tobacco prevention programs. But their appeals to the conscience of our legislators seem to have been thwarted by the deep pockets of the tobacco industry. The decision by the Legislature to repeal the Clean Elections Law on a voice vote in 2003 guaranteed that private money would continue to exert a heavy influence upon the legislative agenda. But people are dying and legislators should be held accountable. The Massachusetts Legislature has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on corporate welfare schemes (which they call “economic stimulus”) while claiming that there isn’t enough money for tobacco prevention. As the new legislature and our new governor take office, it’s time to reexamine our priorities and find a way to revive our tobacco prevention programs. We owe it to our kids.