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Our Opinion: Unconscionable diversion of tobacco funds

January 20, 2015 at 12:00 p.m. | Updated January 20, 2015 at 12:00 p.m.

Here's an embarrassing fact; among the states, Missouri is dead last in spending for tobacco-prevention programs.

What borders on reprehensible is Missouri spends only a fraction of the settlement money it collects from tobacco companies to offset the state's costs of smoking-related illnesses.

How state officials, in good conscience, can divert this money is beyond our comprehension. And, yet, it continues unabated.

Missouri is among the 46 states, five U.S. territories and the District of Columbia that share in a 1998 settlement in which the five major tobacco companies agreed to pay about $10 billion annually for the indefinite future.

In addition to the settlement money, Missouri receives tobacco-related revenue from sales taxes on tobacco products.

In fiscal year 2014, Missouri spent $76,364 on prevention programs, about 0.1 percent of the amount recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to a report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

This year, settlement money and the tobacco tax are expected to generated a combined $231 million for Missouri.

The CDC has recommended Missouri spend $72.9 million this year on tobacco-prevention programs.

Although Missouri's budgeted total is difficult to discern, it is nowhere near that amount.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids reports Missouri has budgeted $70,788 in settlement funds for prevention programs in the current fiscal year. The budget approved by the Legislature, however, shows $150,000 in state general revenue coupled with another $150,000 in federal funding for tobacco prevention.

And State Budget Director Linda Luebbering said two agencies - the departments of Health and Social Services (DHSS) and Mental Health - have budgeted $3.2 million for tobacco-prevention programs.

By any mathematical standard, those numbers are woefully inadequate.

Our state has the ninth-highest smoking rate in the country. Missouri recorded 11,000 smoking-related deaths last year, DHSS reported, including 1,000 linked to secondhand smoke.

Settlement money is intended to reimburse the state for past costs and eliminate future costs of smoking-related illnesses. By failing to address the problem, the state perpetuates the costly health consequences of smoking.

The diversion of settlement money is both unconscionable and tragic.


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