La.'s anti-smoking efforts criticized
BATON ROUGE - Louisiana teen-agers begin smoking at very young ages, yet the state spends only $400,000 on smoking prevention programs.
The state's woefully low spending is 1.8 percent of the portion of its tobacco settlement funds that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says Louisiana should be spending. The CDC recommends the state spend a minimum of $27.1 million.
Commissioner of Administration Mark Drennen said the spending is low because advocacy groups have been unable to produce evidence that prevention programs are successful. "At every meeting, every task force, no one has been able to provide documentation."
Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore has empirical proof that the $20 million his state spends on prevention has lowered high school smoking by 25 percent and middle school smoking by 25 percent.
In an interview with Louisiana Gannett papers, Moore agreed to come to Louisiana to show his data to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and Drennen. Committee Chairman Jerry Luke LeBlanc, D-Lafayette, said in a separate interview that he would set aside a "generous amount of time" so Moore could present the Mississippi programs that have been so successful.
Moore was the attorney general who launched the class-action lawsuit that resulted in the tobacco companies agreeing to pay the states billions of dollars to reimburse them for smoking-related health-care costs. When Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub joined Moore, Gov. Mike Foster and then-state Health Secretary Bobby Jindal signed affidavits for the tobacco companies' side saying they did not authorize Louisiana's joining the lawsuit.
Moore said he is disappointed Louisiana put so little into prevention programs. "That's what the entire lawsuit was about, to reduce spending on health care."
With a population of 2.8 million, Mississippi's spending of $20 million places it fourth in the nation. The $400,000 spent by Louisiana, population 4.1 million, lands the state in 47th place, ahead of states and the District of Columbia that spent nothing.
"The challenge now is to get the other states to spend the money on what the fight was all about," Moore said. "The only place tobacco prevention programs are not working is where they aren't trying them."
A member of the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Louisiana said she will ask the coalition at its Baton Rouge meeting Friday to invite Moore to help it with its lobbying efforts during the upcoming special and regular sessions.
"I will bring up inviting Mike Moore," said Sandra Adams, a coalition member and executive director of the Louisiana Maternal and Child Health Coalition. Most advocacy groups are targeting the renewal and increase in tobacco taxes.
Moore said the $20 million invested by Mississippi goes to major media campaigns aimed at teens, education campaigns within schools, enforcement efforts to check whether retailers are adhering to the law banning sales to those under age 18 and the Partners for Health in Mississippi. The partners are 39 community-based groups that cover all counties to steer local efforts in schools.
The Mississippi campaigns just finished their second year. An intensive survey by the CDC in cooperation with the Mississippi Health Department shows the reductions in smoking among the target teen group.
"Our numbers are going down," Moore said, promising to bring information about the programs and the surveys that show they are working to the Louisiana Legislature and the Foster administration.
Statistics from the Louisiana Office of Public Health indicate more needs to be spent and soon. Among all Louisiana students, 27.3 percent smoke their first cigarette prior to age 13, with a higher prevalence among white males, according to 1999 statistics.
Even more sobering is the OPH's projection that about 100,000 youths in Louisiana are projected to die prematurely due to smoking.
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C., advocacy organization, 2 million American teens smoke their first cigarette each year. Of those, some 780,000 will become daily smokers.
LeBlanc agrees that Louisiana should be spending far more, but said it was a major political fight to put most of the tobacco revenue funds into trust funds to be spent on health and education programs.
"If we had a proven program and information that it yielded results, we could phase it in over two years in pilot programs," he said. "Certainly, we would be interested in hearing (Moore's) program."
Ieyoub said deciding how to spend the tobacco settlement money was a budgetary matter over which he has no authority or control. "I must say, however, I am disappointed that more of an effort was not made to prevent the diseases linked to smoking.
"Prevention, which is the long-term approach, makes sense in saving both dollars and human misery in the long-run," Louisiana's attorney general said. "We should do more on the prevention side."
Dr. Richard Scribner of Mandeville, an advocate of prevention programs, said Louisiana has fumbled the basics. Tobacco use is responsible for 7,000 deaths a year in Louisiana and costs the state $400 million a year to treat smoking-related diseases for Louisiana's underinsured and uninsured, he said.
Scribner's argument mirrors Ieyoub's: In the long-run, it would be cheaper to fund prevention and cessation programs.