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Tobacco cash grab unwise


Gov. Bill Owens' proposal to sell Colorado's annual payments from the tobacco companies is not fiscally sound. Settling for a significantly reduced lump sum payment this year would be a major loss of revenue to the state for decades.

The governor wants to sell 35 years worth of Colorado tobacco settlement payments -- roughly $2.9 billion -- for a one-time lump sum payment of $800 million. Under this proposal, Colorado would receive about 23 cents on the dollar. Most importantly, tobacco prevention and cessation programs in Colorado would be eliminated.

That sale of the tobacco payments violates the intent of the settlement. The purpose of Colorado's (along with 45 other states) suit against tobacco companies in 1998 was to have the industry atone for the staggering tobacco losses the state incurs. Annually 4,600 Coloradans lose their lives because of tobacco use, and Colorado spends more than $1 billion each year on healthcare costs directly related to smoking.

Colorado filed suit, among other reasons, because the tobacco industry was "engaging in deceptive trade practices by undertaking a course of conduct designed to promote the illegal purchases of cigarettes by minors." Twenty-five percent of Colorado teens smoke, with more than 10,800 new smokers under the age of 18 each year. On average, children in Colorado smoke their first cigarette by age 10.

The judgment also was reached because Big Tobacco failed to disclose the known health risks and addictive nature of tobacco. Even though 85 percent of Colorado's adults who currently smoke say they want to quit, without help only 3 percent are successful. For high school students the numbers are sobering as well: 61 percent say they want to quit, 59 percent have tried to quit in the past year.

To improve this staggering condition, Colorado must continue to dedicate a significant portion of its tobacco payments to proven, effective methods so children do not start to smoke and to help teens and adults who are struggling to quit. This is a momentous opportunity to save lives and significantly reduce healthcare costs in Colorado.

In 2003, the legislature dedicated less than 4 percent of Colorado's tobacco settlement payment on tobacco programs. This is down from 15 percent from the previous year. Effective services funded from the tobacco agreement include a comprehensive youth program that includes American Lung Association's Not On Tobacco (N-O-T) teen cessation program that helps more than 1,000 teens in 70 high schools to quit smoking; smoking prevention programs in 32 Colorado middle schools; complete K-12 tobacco programming in five school districts; and a collegiate program providing students on 16 campuses with prevention and cessation programs.

The settlement also currently supports the Colorado Quitline operated by National Jewish Medical and Research Center, providing free cessation counseling to adults across the state; education to physicians and healthcare providers on helping their patients to quit smoking; and outreach through WIC (Women with Infants and Children) clinics to pregnant and parenting mothers who are smoking. Every program has been evaluated and proven to be effective at reducing tobacco's toll on Colorado.

Now these services are in danger of disappearing completely.

Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon and other states have sustained significant funding to comprehensive tobacco programming. They have been rewarded with major health improvements.

During the first three years of Arizona's tobacco program, smoking among adults dropped from 23.1 percent to 18.3 percent.

California's quitline showed that telephone cessation counseling and self-help materials improved the success rate of adults quitting to 25 percent.

In one year of Oregon's program, youth smoking declined by 31 percent among eighth-graders and by 17 percent among 11th-graders.

Overall cigarette consumption in Massachusetts has declined by 30 percent since 1992, compared to a national decline of only 8 percent.

We know what works. Trading $2.9 billion for $800 million is not only fiscally imprudent, but such action breaches the intent of the tobacco settlement.

Neil Utz is the Pikes Peak regional coordinator of the American Lung Association of Colorado.

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