EARLIER THIS year, Congress waived the federal claim to a share of the money the states won in last year's settlement of their lawsuits against tobacco companies. The claim was waived in part on the strength of an assurance by the governors that they were "committed to spending a significant portion of the settlement funds on smoking cessation programs, health care, education and programs benefiting children," uses to which the administration had proposed that the federal share be dedicated.
Now, however, comes a report from anti-smoking groups that "a large majority of states have not yet fulfilled their commitment to use a significant portion of the . . . funds to reduce tobacco use." The report, by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Heart Association, concludes that "if current trends continue, the only winners will be the tobacco companies, which will be able to conduct business as usual. The losers will be . . . children, who will continue to fall prey to tobacco industry marketing, and the . . . taxpayers, who will continue to bear the unnecessary [health care] costs" associated with smoking.
The report found that only six states, including Maryland, "have made substantial new commitments this year to fund tobacco prevention and cessation." Others, including Virginia, have committed to spend less than the minimum amount recommended by the Centers for Disease Control or are using at least the first installments for other purposes, or haven't decided -- the case in the District. It's still possible that a fair amount of the money eventually will find its way into cessation programs, the report said, but at this moment most of the arrows point the other way.
The amounts are anything but trifling. The settlement called for more than $200 billion to be paid over a number of years. The states sought the money in part as compensation for past Medicaid expenditures to treat smoking-related disease. That's how the federal claim arose; the feds pay more than half of Medicaid costs.
The president's budget assumed the federal government would receive a part of the settlement, but the administration said it would be content if states would agree themselves to spend part of the money for certain purposes -- basically the same ones listed by the governors' association in last winter's resolution resisting "federal seizure" of any of the funds.
But the Senate voted to waive the federal claim without conditions, the House ultimately agreed and the president, himself a former governor, made only a minor fuss before agreeing as well.
The state lawsuits were supposed to be part of an effort not so much to recoup lost funds as to curb the use of tobacco, particularly among young people. Various cessation programs, including ad campaigns, along with tobacco-tax increases, which force higher prices, have proved to be effective in this regard. The settlement also will force some price increases. The rest is what many states have thus far left out, even as the state accomplishment is used as a reason not to take further federal action against the industry. It will be the ultimate irony if, in the end, the great state victory over the industry turns out to have scant effect on smoking patterns because in too many cases the proceeds were used instead to defray the normal costs of government.