In a First, Va. Aims To Deter Smoking
RICHMOND, June 6 -- A Virginia panel voted today to spend $11.8 million from the national tobacco settlement on fighting youth smoking, marking the first time the Old Dominion, which long prospered on the world's taste for tobacco, has spent state money t
The vote raised hopes among anti-tobacco activists that Virginia will launch the kind of broad program of billboards, television commercials and school instruction that has cut teen smoking in other states. Nine out of 10 smokers start before their 19th birthday, and 36 percent of the nation's high school students smoke, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.
With today's vote, "the opening bell has sounded" for the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation, said Clarence H. Carter, executive director of the citizens-run group created to reduce the rate of smoking among young people. "We are now prepared to do the work the commonwealth has put before us."
The budget adopted unanimously by the foundation's board today includes $8 million to award grants for anti-tobacco efforts, $1 million to study the patterns of youth smoking in Virginia and $500,000 to police tobacco sales to minors. Monitoring of tobacco sales to young people has fallen off in the months since a U.S. Supreme Court decision barred the Food and Drug Administration from regulating tobacco.
The budget also includes $1.75 million for the foundation to create its own anti-smoking programs, which officials say are likely to include a public advertising effort beyond what has been seen in Virginia. Federal health agencies have long paid for a modest anti-smoking program in Virginia, but it received no state money.
The state got its first taste of anti-smoking billboards over the past year as the national tobacco settlement required that industry billboards be replaced with ones with anti-smoking messages.
Virginia officials erected one set of billboards warning against selling tobacco to minors and another set that showed a pair of older and younger siblings and the words, "My brother never told me not to smoke. He showed me." Anti-smoking groups criticized those billboards as vaguely worded and unlikely to deter teenagers from starting to smoke. The signs are coming down as contracts run out.
In part because of that experience, anti-smoking activists in Virginia remain wary of state efforts, even after today's vote. Many decisions on how to spend the $11.8 million budgeted today have yet to be made.
"You could really do some aggressive things, or they could do some real milquetoast things," said Donna M. Reynolds, of the American Lung Association's chapter in Virginia. "It depends on which direction they go."
The foundation grew out of the General Assembly's decision last year to spend 10 percent of Virginia's share of the national tobacco settlement to fight youth smoking. Legislators also decided to spend half of the settlement money--worth tens of millions of dollars a year--on helping tobacco farmers and their increasingly beleaguered communities.
Virginia expects to receive $4 billion over the next 25 years from the national settlement. During the last two years, the state legislature has debated how to spend that money, rejecting proposals that included spending part of it on transportation projects.
The foundation board that met today controls only the money devoted to reducing smoking among young people. It includes several doctors and also representatives of the tobacco and retail industries. The annual budget is likely to reach $16 million or more in years ahead.
"It's a lot of money given there hasn't been any money in the past," said Steven J. Danish, chairman of the foundation. "It's a tremendous start."
The story is much the same across the nation's tobacco belt, as states long dependent on the money and might of the industry are spending some of their bounty from the 1998 national settlement to reduce teen smoking. Far more is going to revitalize farming communities, but millions are being used to create first-ever anti-smoking programs in states long resistant to them.
Some tobacco settlement money is being spent to fight smoking in Kentucky and Georgia. North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D) is backing a similar measure there.
In Virginia, farmers have cultivated tobacco almost since the first settlers arrived nearly 400 years ago, and the industry has been vital to the state ever since. Virginia has 8,000 farmers who rely on tobacco, a valuable cash crop in an era when many farm products are losing value. Richmond has one of the nation's largest cigarette plants, producing 730 million a day for Philip Morris.
The state has the nation's lowest tobacco tax, 2.5 cents per pack compared to 66 cents per pack in Maryland, where Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) has promised $30 million a year over the next 10 years to reduce smoking.
The tobacco industry remains one of the most important bankrollers of candidates in Virginia politics, giving $1.5 million to campaigns since 1996, behind only six other industry groups. Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and Lt. Gov. John H. Hager (R), a former tobacco industry executive, together have received $650,000 of that money over the same period.
Brown & Williamson Tobacco, based in Louisville, endorsed Virginia's effort against youth smoking after today's vote. "To the extent that tobacco settlement money can be spent to fight youth smoking, that's fabulous," said Corky Newton, a company vice president.