St. Louis County recently received a federal grant of $7.6 million for an anti-smoking campaign. The stated purposes of the campaign are: first, to prevent young people from starting to smoke; second, to lower residents' exposure to secondhand smoke; and third, to help people quit smoking. From all indications, county officials are sincere in wanting to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the state government of Missouri.
Back in 1998 Missouri was part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement with the four largest U.S. tobacco companies. At the time Missouri's share of the payout from this settlement was expected to total $4.5 billion over 25 years. This sum was intended to compensate the state for the medical costs of caring for persons with smoking-related illnesses. It was also supposed to fund anti-smoking programs. The reality, however, has proved to be very different from these laudable stated intentions.
Missouri receives about $253 million annually in settlement funds and tobacco taxes. In 2010 the state will spend $2.4 million on tobacco prevention programs. This amounts to less than one percent of the state's tobacco-generated revenue and puts Missouri in 49th place in its spending on smoking prevention.
Contrast this figure with the legal fees of $111 million that were paid to politically connected lawyers for signing off on the same settlement that was agreed by 49 other states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Missouri actually has a financial incentive not to discourage smoking. Not too long after entering into the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, the state issued hundreds of millions of dollars in so-called "tobacco bonds." Missouri is now dependent on revenue from the big tobacco companies to repay these bonds. The state effectively has a greater financial stake in the big cigarette companies than most of their shareholders. If smoking prevention programs are too successful, Missouri won't be able to repay its tobacco bonds.
It's also worth noting that Missouri now has the lowest cigarette tax in the country. Governor Jay Nixon has expressed his opposition to increasing the tax, pointing out that Missouri voters have twice rejected proposals that would do so. This skepticism on the part of the voters is well founded. They need only look at the state's track record. Missouri has already collected billions of dollars in tobacco settlement funds and cigarette taxes. The percentage that has been spent on anti-smoking programs has been negligible. Who can blame the voters for being suspicious of how the proceeds of a higher tax on cigarettes would be spent?
If state government officials in Jefferson City are serious about reducing smoking, they should follow the example of St. Louis County. Spend the tobacco settlement proceeds the way they were supposed to spent. Devote more of the current cigarette tax to anti-smoking programs. These would be two good ways to earn the trust of the voters the next time an increase in the cigarette tax is on the ballot.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.