Anti-smoking groups press state for more money

abeam@thestate.comFebruary 22, 2014 

Tobacco companies paid South Carolina $68 million last year, but the state did not spend any of that money on smoking-prevention programs.

Anti-smoking groups are upset, saying that omission violates the spirit of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, the 1998 court settlement of an anti-smoking lawsuit that 46 states, including South Carolina, filed against the tobacco industry.

State lawmakers say they spend most of the money on the state’s Medicaid program to help offset the rising cost of health care brought on, in part, by tobacco use.

As part of the lawsuit settlement, the tobacco industry agreed to pay states more than $200 billion. South Carolina’s share of that money is projected to be $3.2 billion.

In 2001, rather than wait for the annual tobacco industry payments, the state chose to get a head start on its spending by borrowing $800 million against the settlement. However, South Carolina paid off that borrowing early and, last year, began receiving the tobacco settlement payments again.

Last year, lawmakers gave $4.2 million of the settlement money to the Department of Social Services for a child-support enforcement system, $4 million to MUSC for its telemedicine program and $2 million to the Department of Agriculture for marketing crops other than tobacco. The balance — most of the settlement money — went to the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.

In the fiscal year that starts July 1, S.C. House budget writers propose again to give the overwhelming majority of the settlement money to the Medicaid program. And, in its budget request, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control did not ask state lawmakers for more money for smoking cessation.

But anti-smoking groups are asking lawmakers to give more anyway and will press their case on the House floor and in the state Senate.

“It is tobacco money. It should go to tobacco prevention,” said Yarley Steedly, a board member of the S.C. Tobacco-Free Collaborative. “We know that the MSA (Master Settlement Agreement) money is available now. We can sit here and be quiet about it, while other entities are going to come in, or do something about it now. It’s going to be a lost opportunity.”

The state’s main anti-smoking program is its Quitline, a phone number that S.C. residents can call to get help to stop smoking. In 2010, after years of debate, state lawmakers raised the cigarette tax, bringing in an extra $135 million a year. State lawmakers gave $5 million of that increase to the Quitline.

“That’s quite a large amount of money for smoking cessation,” said House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson. “Tobacco use is already down. The money is going to health care.”

Tobacco use fell 17 percent in South Carolina from 2010 to 2012, according to the state health agency. The Quitline averaged between 500 and 1,500 calls a month in 2013. But in December, when DHEC launched a statewide anti-smoking ad campaign, calls jumped to more than 3,500 a month.

“You just can’t manage all of that with $5 million a year and be completely effective,” said Steedly of the Tobacco-Free Collaborative.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends South Carolina spend between $35.5 million and $51 million a year on smoking cessation programs. The Tobacco-Free Collaborative wants the state to spend an extra $8 million on the Quitline, Steedly said.

State Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees DHEC’s budget, said he is open to expanding the state’s smoking-cessation programs. But, he added, “I don’t know that we can do it this year.”

“At the end of the day, you have to look at providing services and taking care of the folks that are on Medicaid and health-related services, and I don’t see them as having to be mutually exclusive,” Alexander said.

Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.

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