State must spend more on prevention


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
February 24, 1999

For decades, folks in Wisconsin, whether they smoked or not, have paid the deadly toll of cigarettes. Smokers pay the dearest -- with their lungs, hearts and lives -- for the damage caused by tobacco, while non-smokers help to finance the medical care those folks required.

Now that the tobacco industry is finally paying reparations, it's critical the state use a sizable chunk of that money to prevent people, especially kids, from smoking in the first place.

Under Wisconsin's $5.9 billion settlement of the lawsuit against Big Tobacco, the state will get $338 million over the next biennium. Regrettably, Gov. Tommy Thompson wants to spend only about $5 million of that on tobacco-related programs, including prevention, over the next two years. With all due respect to the governor, this is merely blowing smoke at the problem.

That $5 million doesn't even begin to adequately address prevention, according to the American Cancer Society. The society is part of a coalition of medical, health, civic, education, business and religious groups called Tobacco Reduction Using the Settlement.

TRUST is proposing that $80 million a year be spent on a comprehensive statewide effort to reduce and prevent tobacco use, including programs to help smokers quit and a massive advertising campaign to prevent kids from ever starting.

Thompson, to his credit, has also proposed using part of the tobacco settlement for health care for the working poor and for seniors, but it seems clear that the $5 million earmarked for tobacco will fall woefully short.

Attorney General James Doyle, who played a principal role in the tobacco lawsuit, has proposed putting about $100 million per year in a trust to be spent on preventing kids from taking up the habit and on getting adults to quit.

The core problem is addiction to nicotine. The state can either devote tens of millions now to fighting this powerful addiction, especially among the young, or it can pay hundreds of millions more down the road for Medicaid expenses when those same smokers get sick, as they undoubtedly will.

The problem is especially critical for the young in light of a state survey showing that the percentage of Wisconsin teens in grades nine through 12 who smoke is higher than the national average. According to TRUST, 26,000 Wisconsin kids under 18 become new smokers each year. That should make everyone uneasy.

Getting state lawmakers to agree to spend $80 million a year -- admittedly a huge sum of money -- on something as relatively intangible as prevention may prove too difficult a goal, politically and practically.

But the state can't afford to skimp on prevention, either. If it does, it will -- in Doyle's words -- squander the opportunity of a lifetime.


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Copyright 1999, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.