McLaughlin laments use of tobacco settlement money
CONCORD â€” Attorney General Philip McLaughlin says he didnâ€™t push litigation against the nationâ€™s tobacco companies thinking any winnings would disappear into the stateâ€™s budget.
But thatâ€™s what happened.
"My motivation in driving New Hampshire into the litigation shortly after becoming attorney general was entirely because of the public health issue," said McLaughlin. "I didnâ€™t get into this to be a collection agent for the state."
Since the 1998 settlement, lawmakers have used nearly all the money collected to balance the state budget rather than spend it on tobacco prevention and treatment as McLaughlin and others envisioned.
Thanks largely to former state Sen. Jim Squires, $3 million of the approximately $40 million the state gets each year is earmarked for such programs.
But this year, once again facing trouble paying for school aid and other state spending, lawmakers grabbed half of the $3 million.
Senate President Arthur Klemm defends the decision, arguing the program was just getting started and only ready to spend $1.5 million. Lawmakers budgeted the full $3 million for the program in each of the next two years.
House Democratic Leader Peter Burling attributes it to "one of the inescapable consequences of having a crummy revenue system." He blames it on the Republicansâ€™ refusal to reform the tax system. Instead, lawmakers use "every dime and quarter that comes along for core purposes rather than for the purposes for which it was sent to us."
Pamela Walsh, Gov. Jeanne Shaheenâ€™s spokeswoman, says the use for the funds had a lot of competition in the budget.
"We were fighting on a number of fronts during the budget process," said Walsh.
McLaughlin acknowledges he has no control over how the money â€” meant to compensate states for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses â€” is used.
New Hampshire will collect about $40 million a year until 2025.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 34 percent of New Hampshire high school students smoke and 5,000 more children under 18 start smoking each year.
The settlement doesnâ€™t require states to spend their money on anti-smoking programs. Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, whose state initiated the lawsuit, said many states, like New Hampshire, see the money as a windfall. Mississippi is one of the few which dedicates the money to health care and pays for a comprehensive anti-smoking program, he said.
"The rest of the states are spending it on the political program of the day, whether it be tax cuts or highways or whatever the governorâ€™s theme was when he ran for office," said Moore. "It turns a major public health victory and a huge loss for the tobacco companies into a huge win for the tobacco companies."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates New Hampshire would have to spend between $11 million and $25 million a year to build an anti-smoking program that actually reduces smoking.
The $3 million New Hampshire set aside is for a variety of education programs in schools and communities, local cessation programs for smokers who want to stop, an advertising campaign and stronger law enforcement efforts to keep children from buying tobacco.