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Our Opinion: Diversion of tobacco-related revenues continues

Editor's note: See the correction below this editorial.

Paltry spending among the states on tobacco-prevention programs has rankled the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In a report released last week by the federal agency, states were criticized for directing only about 3 percent of revenue from tobacco taxes and legal settlements to deter smoking.

Between 1998 and 2010, the numbers show states collected nearly $244 billion in tobacco-related revenue, but spent a mere $8.1 billion on tobacco-controls efforts, far below the CDC’s recommended spending of $29.2 billion.

Missouri, sadly, is among the worst offenders.

Our state ranked 45th among the 50 states in fiscal year 2012 spending on tobacco prevention, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The good news is the ranking marks an improvement over being in 48th place for fiscal year 2011.

The disturbing news is Missouri’s spending remains at 0.1 percent of the CDC recommendation. Of Missouri’s $244 million in tobacco-generated revenue for 2012, Missouri spent just $60,000, well below the CDC target of $73.2 million.

The CDC also noted spending on tobacco prevention has declined as states divert tobacco-related revenue to avoid cuts in other budget categories.

In Missouri, the governor and lawmakers face a constitutional mandate to approve a budget that can be balanced at the end of the state’s business year, each June 30.

Diverting tax revenues sometimes is a necessary evil. Diverting settlement money is more difficult to justify because the award is specifically designed to offset damages.

Some critics of the diversion are less collegial, characterizing the transfer as indefensible and inexcusable.

Health organizations in the state, including the American Cancer Society, are attempting to place a ballot issue before voters to increase tobacco taxes, including a hike of 80 cents on each pack of cigarettes.

Hurdles remain, but if the proposed tax increase does make it to the ballot, voters must be wary of continued diversion.

Lawmakers and elected leaders have demonstrated a willingness to divert revenue intended to prevent tobacco use. Will the proposal contain a mechanism to prevent continued diversion?

Correction: The CDC target spending figure for Missouri is $73.2 million. The number was incorrect in the original version of this page. It has since been corrected in the above text.

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