Up in smoke

Smokers may close the budget gap, but anti-tobacco education efforts have lost funding and been hobbled by lawsuits

Photo by Larry Dalton

Hua Ni and Leslie Horvath are not your passive television and movie watchers. The two teenagers view myriad shows and get school credit for keeping score of how many actors smoke, how often and whether their cigarette use is portrayed as sexy, cool or sick. Is the scantily clad object of desire in the nightclub suggestively sucking on her cigarette or does some creepy character start hacking after taking a drag?

“Hollywood sometimes shows that smoking is bad for you but a lot of smoking is still portrayed as glamorous,” said Horvath, who is 16 years old.

She and 18-year-old Ni participate in one of the American Lung Association of Sacramento’s tobacco prevention programs, which tracks tobacco use in shows as well as smoking promotions in magazines. The association’s Thumbs Up Thumbs Down education project, which aims to keep kids from getting hooked on cigarettes, is one of many tobacco prevention programs funded by the state. It is also one of the few that has not yet suffered serious cuts or been de-funded.

The budget for one of the lung association’s sister programs, which works with Hollywood celebrities to de-glamorize smoking on the silver screen, was cut by 75 percent. Other programs that focus on preventing and curbing tobacco addiction and tobacco-related deaths and illnesses—which include cancer, heart disease and emphysema—have fared even worse.

Funding dries up
Anti-tobacco programs are being gutted because their source of funding, the state Department of Health Service’s Tobacco Control Section (TCS), has seen its budget slashed by $61 million. The section is funded by revenue from Proposition 99, passed by the voters in 1988, which slapped a 25 cent tax on cigarettes. Money also comes from the state’s share of the 1998 national settlement with the tobacco industry. California received $12.4 billion, which was to be divvied up over time.

That was at least until this summer when Governor Gray Davis and democratic lawmakers decided to convert the settlement money into an up-front lump payment of $4.5 billion. The chunk of money will be used as collateral for bonds to help fill the state’s $24 billion deficit, which means the end of the stream of settlement tobacco money.

The whopping state deficit is also being backfilled with Proposition 99 money, taking another hit on tobacco control and health-care programs.

“It is a huge blow,” said Kirk Kleinschmidt, an advocate for the American Heart Association and chair of the Tobacco Oversight Education Committee that oversees the California’s anti-tobacco measures.

The raid on the health department’s TCS’ budget also disturbs Cynthia Hallet, executive director of the Berkeley-based Americans for Non Smokers Rights. “Granted we are in a budget crunch, but the voters decided in 1989 to fund tobacco prevention,” she said. In addition, using the tobacco settlement money for budget reasons goes against the intent of the settlement, she added.

Since 1989, California has been a renowned leader in tobacco-prevention efforts, which began with the passage of Prop. 99. Between 1989 and 1996, two billion fewer packs of cigarettes were sold, which translates into $3 billion less in tobacco company coffers, according to TCS.

In addition, the return on the programs to reduce tobacco use by children and adults and to protect against second-hand smoke-related illnesses has been significant. Every dollar spent on prevention yields $3 in savings on health-care costs.

Among the state-funded programs axed was the Sacramento lung association’s 11-year project that coordinated nine counties’ anti-tobacco programs, which included Sacramento, Amador, El Dorado, Placer and Yolo. This Gold Country Regional Coalition, which was the first regional program created to counter the tobacco industry’s influence, was eliminated July 1. It was also one of 11 regional programs funded by Prop. 99, all of which are history.

“The Gold Country coalition was the glue that held the local programs together,” said Kori Titus, the association’s director of tobacco-prevention programs.

Interestingly enough, the tobacco industry was known to pay people to attend coalition meetings and record anti-tobacco activities. “They even called staff to try and engage them in conversation and quotes that the industry could use against them,” states a coalition brochure.

David v. Goliath
Not only are tobacco-control programs’ budgets being cut, but they are being undermined by huge amounts of tobacco money spent on marketing, which include promotions in bars, and on lobbying and campaign contributions.

According to the latest figures reported to the Federal Trade Commission, the tobacco industry poured $1.1 billion into California for marketing in 2000. And that figure has risen steadily, according to Hallet.

“This is not the right time for the state to be stepping back,” Kleinschmidt insisted.

But that is not the whole picture. Tobacco companies are also hampering the tobacco control section’s work with endless legal demands for its files. There are a handful of lawsuits filed against the tobacco companies and DHS’ tobacco-control section has been drawn in as third parties.

Part of the tobacco companies’ defense is that they were relieved from informing people about the dangers of smoking because that became the state’s job with the passage of Prop. 99. To support that claim, industry lawyers have been demanding access to a huge number of the department’s files.

Subpoenaing documents from its adversary is nothing new, but the barrage of demands by tobacco lawyers for “anything and everything”—be it in storage or a worker’s personal files—the last eight months is unprecedented, said one state worker. It is not only very disruptive because of the large demand on limited staff’s time, but the control section with the assistance of the state attorney general frequently fights the companies in court to keep them from getting access to confidential information and material unrelated to the suit. That includes the section’s media strategies—be it a T-shirt with anti-tobacco message or analysis of future programs.

Some suspect the tobacco companies will twist the information they get from the tobacco-control section to undermine its work, as they did with the Gold Country Regional Coalition. One of the agency staff noted that when the state sued the tobacco industry in the late 1980s, the industry subpoenaed hundreds of boxes of materials and some of the information later turned up “as misinformation and propaganda that was used in other states.”

Smoke and mirrors
At first blush, a light seemed to have appeared on the hazy horizon following democratic lawmakers’ proposal to increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes to $3 as a way of balancing this year’s budget, which made front-page news.

A pack of cigarettes would cost more than $7 and the tax would raise $1.7 billion to further decrease the state debt. Funding for tobacco education programs would have gone down even more because the high cost would decrease tobacco sales and therefore lessen Prop. 99 revenues.

To ease the blow, Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson, a smoker and proponent of the tax, announced last week that if the higher cost of cigarettes drives down sales, thus making less revenue available for tobacco prevention programs, then the state will replenish those funds.

Anti-tobacco groups felt Wesson’s action was a bit of good news because they support measures to reduce consumption. The problem is that the proposed tax will disproportionately impact people with limited financial means and education—the majority of smokers—but not help these people kick the habit.

The heart association’s Kleinschmidt was, however, impressed with Wesson’s promise not to accept tobacco industry money. “Wesson is traditionally not involved in tobacco issues and that’s courageous of him,” he said.

According to Common Cause, politicians have gone back into the habit of taking tobacco money. Earlier this year, the organization revealed that the smoking industry was ranked number three among the top 10 contributors to legislators. Phillip Morris Companies pumped in $1.3 million into legislative races in 1999-2000, writing checks to politicians on both sides of the aisle. Democrat Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza received $87,000, Republican Senator Ross Johnson received $70,000, Democratic Senator Mike Machado was given $67,000 and Republican Senator Jim Brulte $65,000.

“For a long time no one took tobacco money because it was seen as tainted, but it has became OK again to take it,” said Jim Knox, head of Common Cause.

The tobacco-prevention lobbyists also have to contend with adverse legislation. The most worrisome bill is one that would take more money away from the state’s tobacco-control section and pre-empt effective local non-smoking ordinances.

The legislation, originally by Senator Steve Peace but now authored by Assemblyman Jerome Horton, proposes requiring sellers of tobacco products to be licensed. It would also create an anti-smuggling task force and a state-wide measure restricting smoking, which would be weaker than existing local ones.

Hallet sees the bill as another attempt by the industry “to pilot test some of its dirty tricks in California.”

In spite of how things are stacked against them, anti-tobacco advocates have no plans to throw in the towel. “If it is not a fair fight, we’ll at least try and fight them,” said Paul Knepprath, American Cancer Association lobbyist.