Washington's use of tobacco windfall closely watched by states

By LAURENCE M. CRUZ The Associated Press 02/02/99

OLYMPIA (AP) -- What Washington state does with its initial $323 million share of the national tobacco settlement could set a crucial precedent for other states, witnesses told lawmakers on Tuesday.

"Every state in the union is looking at this state," said Greg Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, referring to state Attorney General Christine Gregoire's pivotal role in the national settlement against big tobacco last November.

"Has Christine Gregoire delivered for the nation! And what you do is going to determine what happens in Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia, Maine, New York, Rhode Island," Connolly said. "... This is a historic afternoon."

The national settlement with 46 states totaled $206 billion, with Washington to receive about $4 billion over 25 years, including $323 million in the two-year fiscal period between 1999 and 2001.

Connolly was one of several witnesses who urged the House Health Care Committee to support Gov. Gary Locke's proposed use of $150 million of the initial amount to set up an endowment to pay for smoking cessation and anti-tobacco programs. Competition for the money was expected to be fierce among special interests in the Legislature.

Some legislators expressed concerns about the effectiveness of government programs in changing the behavior of teen-agers, who seem to rebel against the efforts.

"Why are more teens participating in things that are bad for them since government has got involved with more programs?" asked Rep. Joyce Mulliken, R-Ephrata.

But some of those concerns were allayed when Connolly wowed the panel with a presentation that included sample television advertisements that had successfully helped reduce smoking in a adults and teen-agers in Massachusetts.

The ads featured, for example, a talking camel defending its species against the tobacco industry's portrayals of camels as smokers, and a gritty-voiced former model with no vocal chords regretting her days as a cigarette poster girl.

Both Connolly's testimony and that of John Miller, a staffer with the Senate Health Committee in California, were designed to prove to lawmakers that comprehensive, long-term anti-smoking campaigns do work.

In Massachusetts and California, a combination of in-school programs, statewide education campaigns, price increases and aggressive advertising campaigns have yielded results, they said.

For example, in California, smoking among adults fell from a national average of about 26 percent to 18 percent since the anti-tobacco program began 10 years ago, Miller said.

"We believe we have prevented 500,000 heart attacks since we began and saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

Those figures, coupled with testimonies from Gregoire and researchers at the University of Washington, made for a persuasive argument.

"Wonderful stuff for us to aspire to," said Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Seattle, of Connolly's presentation.

"If it works, I'm all for it," said Mulliken after the hearing. "I just don't like putting money into programs with no effect."

But whether Locke's proposed use of the tobacco money will make it into law was yet to be seen, she said.

"A lot will depend on the caucus presentations. I think that will give us a better barometer," she said.

An effective tobacco control program is not cheap. California spent $20 million a year on its advertising campaign, funded by a public initiative that raised the price of cigarettes.

In an interview, Connolly warned that if the state tries to scrimp on tobacco control spending, "it's going to be looked at as a classic failure."

In addition to the $150 million in tobacco control, Locke has proposed spending $154 million of the money this biennium to shore up the state's troubled Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized health insurance for lower-income working people.

Locke also wants to spend $4 million on subsidized health care coverage for 10,000 Washington children.

Copyright 1999 Oregon Live LLC Copyright 1999 Associated Press.