Officials push smoking prevention
BLOOMINGTON -- Cigarette smoking and the diseases it causes could be cut if the states pay for prevention programs recommended by federal health officials, a public health leader said.
"A genuine youth prevention program over 15 to 20 years would do a lot to bring cigarette consumption down, which would reduce the diseases (especially lung cancer and heart disease) that it contributes to and the medical costs associated with treating those diseases," said Bob Keller, director of the McLean County Health Department.
The American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids released a report last week. They said that three years after reaching the $246 billion in legal settlements with the tobacco industry, most states are failing to keep their promise to use a significant portion of their settlement proceeds to fund tobacco-prevention programs.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recommended that 20 percent to 25 percent of each state's settlement funds be used for tobacco prevention programs.
Only five states are meeting that level. Some states are using some of the money this year to help balance budgets.
The report called that approach "penny wise and pound foolish."
Illinois ranked ninth
Illinois ranked ninth among the 50 states because this year it is funding smoking prevention programs at 70.7 percent of the CDC guidelines. Illinois is spending $45.9 million on tobacco prevention this year but receives about $400 million annually in tobacco settlement dollars, Keller said.
Illinois started slowly, at first using much of the settlement dollars for a tax rebate and then last year for computer infrastructure at the University of Illinois, Keller said.
This year, more money is going for tobacco prevention. Keller gives state legislators credit for that but said legislators appear uncomfortable with allocating more.
"A number of individuals in the General Assembly are concerned that they will start programs that eventually won't have funds," Keller said.
Tobacco settlement dollars will be available for more than 20 years and a lot of impact may be made in that time, he said.
McLean County figures
For example, the McLean County Health Department is getting $143,000 this year and most of that money is going to Tar Wars (tobacco prevention aimed at fourth- and fifth-graders) and TATU (in which high school students are trained to mentor younger students about dangers of smoking), Keller said.
If more money was available, Keller would target students in grades six through eight. "We know that if people don't smoke by age 18, it's unlikely they will start. The idea is to create a culture in youth that says smoking is not cool."
The health department's goal is to reduce the percentage of smokers in the county to 12 percent, but about 25.5 percent of county residents smoke and 39 percent of 10th graders have smoked.