Utahns answer Graham's call to arms

By Lucinda Dillon -- Deseret News staff writer
February 06, 1999

Legislators might be peeved, but the public is abiding Utah Attorney General Jan Graham's plea to contact lawmakers and demand tobacco settlement money be spent on health and tobacco prevention programs.

On Friday, the American Cancer Society had to beef up staffing to handle calls from angry Utahns shocked that tobacco money may be headed elsewhere, said Beverly May, director of Grassroots Advocacy for the American Cancer Society.

"The phones have been ringing off the wall."

This week's tussle between Graham and GOP lawmakers over money Utah hopes to get from a national tobacco settlement has hit a nerve with just about everybody. The state is expected to get $38 million this year and $836 million overall.

The public is responding. GOP lawmakers are digging in their heels. Graham's fire seems fueled. And tobacco prevention groups say if lawmakers won't listen to the people, then maybe a voter referendum is in order.

It's just as Graham hoped.

"This (tobacco lawsuit) has been the major focus of my life as attorney general the last two years, and there is no way I'm going to stand by and let all this victory be lost," she said Friday.

Although some lawmakers said they had received calls or electronic mail on the subject, it was unclear if the effort was having a tangible effect. "I'm not sure," House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, said late Friday.

"I know it is making a lot of (legislators) mad."

Discussion on the topic has raged since early in the week, when Graham, the only Democrat elected to a statewide office, watched the Utah State Senate vote down a resolution that would have earmarked part of the money for anti-tobacco programs.

She announced her citizens campaign immediately. It coincided with a week's worth of radio advertisements, which she paid for out of her campaign fund.

Lawmakers responded Wednesday by holding hostage a $750,000 appropriation to Graham's office for fraud investigations.

Lawmakers - historically reluctant to "earmark" money for specific sources - said they had to wait and see: when the money comes, how much it will be and whether it will be depleted by the federal Medicaid program that has paid millions for tobacco-related illnesses.

Gov. Mike Leavitt sees nothing wrong with waiting either.

"Some should be spent to prevent tobacco and drug use," he said at a press briefing Friday. But it's "premature" to commit a percentage or dollar amount, he said.

But this year, 8,000 Utah kids will start smoking.

"That's why I filed Utah's lawsuit against the tobacco companies," Graham says in radio advertisements that began Wednesday.

"But two years ago, a state cigarette tax raised millions, but our Legislature chose to spend less than 2 percent on tobacco prevention," Graham tells listeners. "We can't let that happen again. Our lawsuit was about protecting children's health, and that's where the money must go."

She also referred listeners to the American Cancer Society.

About 250 people called the cancer society on Thursday to get their local representative's e-mail address or phone number. By late Friday, May hadn't tallied the calls, but said they were coming in at the same pace.

Public reaction is no surprise.

In 1997, while the Legislature debated a cigarette tax hike, a poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed not only did Utahns favor the tax increase, but the majority also wanted the new revenue to go toward teen smoking prevention programs.

Another poll conducted in November by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. for the Coalition for Tobacco Free Utah showed that 90 percent of 621 people polled believed half the money should be used to combat tobacco addiction.

Throughout the country, "public opinion is outpacing politicians' desire to do something," on the topic said Gordon Lindsey, chairman of the Department of Health Sciences at Brigham Young University and Chairman of the Coalition for Tobacco Free Utah.

Look at California, he said.

In 1987, lawmakers voted down a 25-cent cigarette tax increase that designated 20 percent to anti-smoking campaigns. A year later, voters passed a referendum that increased their taxes, but earmarked the money toward stop-smoking programs, Lindsey said.

The victory came despite a $20 million tobacco industry infusion to squelch the drive.

Citizens in Arizona and Massachusetts have taken similar action, he said.

May took notes on some of phone calls she answered personally at the Cancer Society.

"Why would they hold up a (funding) bill that would affect children, especially one to pay for child abuse, just because they don't like the attorney general?" one caller said.

"Why don't the Republicans look at the issues instead of personalities?" lamented another caller.

"There's been a lot of anger. And on the other side of anger, there's been a lot of, 'We need this money for children. That's what it was for,' " May said. "There's also a lot of shock at the possibility the money wouldn't go for tobacco prevention."

Parties who share May's sentiments will gather in a youth rally at the Utah State Capitol Rotunda Thursday, Feb. 11, at 4 p.m. The Utah PTA will participate as will the Governor's Youth Council.

Each year, the tobacco industry spends $17 per person to attract people to the habit, according to May. In contrast, the Legislature spends 2 cents per resident from the new cigarette tax to prevent new tobacco use.

So it's not hard to guess who wins, May said.

Historically, the majority of Utah's 104 lawmakers have suffered from commitment phobia on this subject.

GOP leadership has refused to "earmark" money this way.

In 1997, when they passed a law that brought about $50 million in revenue after hiking the tax on cigarettes, lawmakers gave $500,000 - about 2 percent - to tobacco prevention programs. Stop smoking groups did the most they could with the money, building a much-discussed radio and television campaign aimed at teens.

"Advertising works. If it works for the tobacco industry, it certainly works the other way," Lindsey said. "California has spent the money, and it's money well spent. It's been a major success story."