As the state continues to divert money from a tobacco abuse prevention fund to the general budget, advocates working to curb cancer deaths blame lawmakers for failing to support efforts to quit the habit and for opening the door to a new generation of smokers.
The two-year budget passed in special session June 30 included a provision to strip the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund of its yearly allotment of funding through a 1998 Master Settlement Agreement with the nation’s major tobacco companies.
The massive settlement includes annual payments to participating states to help compensate for the costs of caring for those with smoking-related illnesses. In 2014, that meant an additional $197 million in Connecticut’s coffers, according to the Office of Policy and Management. The settlement is projected to bring in $119 million in 2015.
But the trust fund established by statute more than 15 years ago to address tobacco abuse, substance abuse, and unmet physical and health needs was only slated to receive $12 million of that half-a-billion dollar influx in 2016-17. By passing the biennium budget, lawmakers reduced funding to zero for both years. The language also specified that the annual allocation would return in 2018 — not at $12 million, but at $6 million.
Bryte Johnson, state director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Action Network, said the latest edition of the organization’s annual progress report released Thursday shows the state is not giving people the tools they need to quit smoking or to prevent them from picking up a cigarette in the first place.
“Connecticut incurs $1.63 billion in annual health care costs and another $1 billion in lost productivity directly caused by tobacco use each year — and we are investing zero dollars in our state tobacco control program for 2016,” Johnson said. “Aren’t our kids worth more than zero? Isn’t our health worth more than zero? If we want to continue to fight cancer in this state, the answer to that question needs to be a resounding ‘yes’.”
According to the American Cancer Society Action Network, Connecticut ranks in the bottom tier of U.S. states for state-funded programming to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use among youth and adults. In fiscal year 2015, it spent 11 percent of the dollar amount recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Earlier this year, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy first proposed eliminating the annual trust fund allocation from the 2016-17 budget, Johnson said the move would mark “the third time in eight years that Connecticut will rank dead last in the U.S. in tobacco control spending.”
State Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the Public Health Committee, said legislators have had to make difficult choices in lean budget years.
“You get a lot of competing demands for revenue in a tough budget year,” Ritter he said, adding that if lawmakers had instead cut funding in the area of health insurance, for example, it could have led to other negative health outcomes.
“It’s always a difficult balance,” he said.
Ritter pointed to a drastic reduction in smoking rates — according to the American Cancer Society, the number of adult and youth smokers is at historic lows — and said he hopes increased education and programming will be funded as the economy improves.
The report places Connecticut among the 25 states that have made improvements in reducing suffering and death caused by cancer. Based on a ranking of nine areas, Connecticut met policy recommendations in five of them.
The state fared well in using increased tax rates to discourage smoking and in enhancing access to Medicaid.
A gradual increase on the cigarette tax approved this year is expected to bring in additional $24.5 million in 2016, according to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis. It is expected to bring in $33.2 million by 2020.
That’s important because every 10 percent increase in the retail price of a pack of cigarettes means youth smoking rates drop by 6.5 percent and overall cigarette consumption declines by 4 percent, the report said.
The report also cited Connecticut as one of only nine states to provide comprehensive tobacco cessation coverage under Medicaid that includes individual and group counseling and covers all seven FDA-approved medications to help smokers quit.
The report indicated the state is making progress in the area of smoke-free laws and indoor tanning bed restrictions.
This session, lawmakers banned the use of electronic cigarettes in bars and restaurants in a law that will go into effect Oct. 1. At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, called for a national ban on indoor tanning for minors. Two years ago, the state outlawed indoor tanning for those under 17 years old.
According to 2014 statistics from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, the population of adult smokers in Connecticut comes in at 15.5 percent. Among high school students, 13.5 percent are smokers.
There are 4,900 deaths from smoking per year in Connecticut.