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Tobacco money up in smoke

Nevada Appeal editorial board

One of the key debates in lawsuits against tobacco companies is whether smoking is addictive and how much effort the companies made to warn people of the dangers of potential addiction.

Now, one of the key debates over tobacco settlement money – the payoffs to states, including Nevada, to stop filing lawsuits against the companies – is just how addicted the states have become to those tobacco payments.

Nationally, only about 5 percent of tobacco settlement money is going to smoking prevention, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures. That’s about a quarter of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.

Nevada, often cited as a leading state in per-capita tobacco usage, is dragging that percentage down. In 2000 and 2001, out of the $92 million received in the Silver State from tobacco payments, a paltry $694,000 – less than 1 percent – was earmarked directly for tobacco prevention, according to the study.

The figure will go up significantly in 2002, with $3.8 million headed for tobacco prevention out of $44 million expected to be received.

Some of the justification for spending tobacco money in Nevada is questionable. For example, the Legislature made a one-time grant to public broadcasting stations to help them develop high-density television. What’s the link to tobacco? The stations must run tobacco prevention public-service announcements – as if a public station wouldn’t be willing to do that anyway.

Fortunately in Nevada, most of the tobacco money is going to health services and long-term care. Certainly, that’s a justifiable use of the funds, and Nevada is well above the national average in spending in that category.

And 40 percent of the tobacco settlement is going toward Millennium Scholarships, a worthy project we support – even if its relevance to tobacco use is also somewhat circumspect.

Other states, however, are clearly using tobacco money like a finger in the dike of budget shortfalls. In North Dakota, for example, its going to pay down bonds on a water project.

As these states do little or nothing to combat the health effects of smoking, they will eventually discover the costs of unhealthy behavior greatly outweigh the “windfall” bankrolled by tobacco companies.

In other words, they are acting as if the day of reckoning will never come – just like smokers themselves.