Tobacco prevention spending not up to snuff
Half a nicotine patch.
That's what you could buy with your portion of the tobacco settlement money Georgia allotted to tobacco prevention programs this year.
Georgia lawmakers decided how to spend the first $150 million of that money, but only $15.8 million - or about $2 per Georgian - is earmarked for prevention programs this year.
At that rate, the state will never stop paying for tobacco-related illnesses, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
"We currently spend millions a year treating tobacco-related illness," said Letetia Daniels, an Atlanta-based spokeswoman for the nonprofit. "It's not going to go away unless we decrease the number of people smoking."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Georgia spend about $43 million to $114 million annually on tobacco prevention programs.
CDC based its guidelines on the experiences of states with successful tobacco prevention programs, then made adjustments for population, the rural-urban mix and the percentage of smokers in a state, according to Terry Pechacek, the assistant director for science with the CDC's office on smoking and health.
States that follow the guidelines could expect to see a doubling to tripling in the current decline in the prevalence of smoking and the percentage of non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke, Pechacek said.
Last year Georgia legislators divvied up the tobacco settlement money among development and health programs.
The newly formed rural development agency called OneGeorgia Authority got the single biggest chunk of money - $62 million for its first year.
OneGeorgia's executive director, Laura Meadows, said that while tobacco prevention and health initiatives are important, so is assisting the 106 counties of the state that haven't kept up with the economic progress seen in suburban areas. That support includes new agri-business initiatives to replace tobacco farming.
Georgia's prevention spending - at 37 percent of the minimum recommended by CDC - ranks 25th among 46 states that have made decisions about tobacco settlement funds or have used other state funding for tobacco prevention.
South Carolina, with spending at about 7 percent of CDC's recommended minimum, ranked 42nd.
Only six states - Maine, Mississippi, Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Indiana - followed the CDC guidelines.
The current budget proposed by Gov. Roy Barnes increases prevention by about $5 million.
But Daniels noted the increase still falls short of the CDC guidelines.
About 30,000 Georgia children take up smoking every year, according to the Georgia Department of Human Resources.
And about 90 percent of adult smokers report that they began smoking as teen-agers, Daniels said.
Tobacco prevention programs can curb smoking, advocates say. Florida's well-funded Youth Tobacco Pilot Program (from which grew a series of controversially graphic ads including one featuring body bags piled high in front of a tobacco company) saw tobacco use decline 54 percent among middle schoolers and 24 percent among high schoolers from 1998-2000.
Locally, the Chatham and Effingham county health departments have $110,000 to sponsor community-based mini-grants for programs that prevent smoking or help smokers quit.
More money for such grants would help get the anti-tobacco message out, according to Dr. Diane Weems, the interim director of the health departments.
That message can work, but it's up against big money from tobacco companies.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates tobacco companies spend $146 million a year advertising in Georgia.
"We have to be just as slick and effective in our counter-marketing," Weems said.