Anti-smoking funds considered #8216;easy money#8217;

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Gov. Ted Strickland and legislative leaders knew just where to go looking for a handout to help pay for a $1.57 billion job-creation package: the people trying to get smokers to quit.

To ease deficits in previous budgets, former Gov. Bob Taft and lawmakers frequently raided a fund set up to help smokers quit and to prevent people — mostly teens — from starting.

The money in the fund came from the landmark settlement Ohio and other states reached with tobacco companies to resolve lawsuits over the effects of smoking. Since the Legislature and governor decide where the money goes in the first place, it’s easier for them to take it back than to make cuts elsewhere.

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“It’s free money,” said Richard McGowan, an economics professor at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management who studies how the settlement money is used in various states. “You just sit there and say, ‘Who’s going to scream about it?’”

This time, however, anti-smoking forces fought back.

Within a three-hour span on Tuesday, the GOP-led Legislature passed, and Democrat Strickland signed, a bill that would nearly extinguish the fund used by the Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation, diverting $230 million of the $270 million it contained and putting it in the state treasury.

The foundation sued the state the next day, and a Franklin County judge on Thursday ordered the money frozen until a hearing on April 23.

Shelly Kiser, director of advocacy for the anti-smoking American Lung Association of Ohio, said the money shouldn’t be going to a new job-creation initiative, but to jobs for the cardiologists and nurses who will be needed if more people start smoking or don’t quit. If smokers fill many of the jobs the new jobs package promises, companies can count on lost production from people out sick.

“Why in the world would they keep going back to this? It’s very counterintuitive to what they are trying to accomplish,” Kiser said. “You need to use this money to prevent this cost from occurring in the future.”

But Ohio’s anti-smoking program was created at the beginning of the decade, when the economy was humming, said House Speaker Jon Husted, a suburban Dayton Republican.

Quashing residents’ smoking habits was also a more pressing issue at that time, he said. Since then, outside forces have discouraged smoking and rates have gone down.

“We now have a statewide smoking ban. The tax on cigarettes has gone up, which has driven down usage, and we now have an economic need,” Husted said. “We’ve tried to use within our ability the resources we have available to make smart decisions for the state of Ohio and that’s not always going to make everyone happy.”

Based on other court cases, the judge is likely to rule that the foundation deserves to retain adequate funding, McGowan said.

The conundrum for the fund’s protectors is that — even if they win — it’s usually up to the Legislature to decide what’s adequate.

It is true that the percentage of people who smoke has dropped nationwide, McGowan said, but it’s stuck at about 24 percent and unlikely to drop below that anytime soon.

Kiser argues that’s why groups like Ohio’s tobacco use prevention foundation are important. Aggressive anti-smoking efforts have helped California and New York drop below the national average and they can work in Ohio, too — but not without money, she said.

States like Ohio that rely heavily on smokers through the extra taxes they pay should not take away incentives to quit, Kiser said.

“They’ve got tens of billions of dollars in tobacco-related revenues. Now they’re taking that little tiny bit that’s left,” Kiser said.

Johny McCarthy is a reporter for The Associated Press.