Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Two More States Admit Addiction to Cigarette Sales Revenues; Public Health Harms of MSA Becoming Clear

You can add Nevada and South Carolina to the list of states which have recognized and publicly admitted that they are hopelessly addicted to cigarette sales revenues, and that they therefore are dependent upon smokers for their financial wellbeing, creating an over-riding incentive not to do anything that would substantially reduce smoking in their states.

In both states, the possibility that Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) payments may be less then expected is threatening to throw the state budgets into disarray, as the financial stability of the states was dependent on the continuation of this stream of revenues, which had been allocated for critical state programs.

In Nevada, social and health programs for the seniors and disabled are at risk due to a potential $7 million reduction in MSA payments. In South Carolina, required bond payments are at risk due to the potential $15 million reduction in MSA proceeds.

The loss of these funds in Nevada could be devastating for seniors and the disabled. The legislature does not meet again until February of 2007 and the governor has stated his reluctance to call a special session of the legislature to appropriate additional revenues to save these programs; thus, they may need to be suspended for at least a year.

According to an article in the Las Vegas Business Review: "While the state takes a wait-and-see approach, Mary Rodriquez worries about what will become of the people she feels most desperately need those tobacco dollars. The program director of the non-profit Helping Hands of the Vegas Valley assists people like Leon Wilson. The Las Vegas senior, who is wheelchair bound, can now get to his doctor's appointments and go shopping for groceries because of this service. Settlement money pays 'almost 100 percent' for the disabled and senior transport services used by Wilson and others like him, according to Rodriquez. It is among the independent living assistance options offered by the Las Vegas Helping Hands, which receives support from the Fund for Healthy Nevada's half of the annual settlement allocation."

"'Without the tobacco dollars, the Division of Aging Services would just be devastated,' warned state Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani (D-Las Vegas). 'Over 30 percent of their budget is from the tobacco fund.' The problem, however, goes beyond tobacco companies potentially withholding settlement payments, she added. Nevada shouldn't be dependent on the settlement to take care of health-care needs in the first place."

The article concludes that: "Unfortunately, many state health care and senior programs have become addicted to tobacco money."

In South Carolina, the Attorney General referred to the MSA as "lunacy" because of its creation of a system by which the states must promote and protect the profits of Big Tobacco in order to sustain needed the solvency of the state's budget. According to an article in the Island Packet:

"'It's another lunacy of this program,' said Trey Walker, spokesman for South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster. '(Attorney General McMaster) finds himself the tobacco regulator in South Carolina, and put in a position where he has to prop up big tobacco to make sure they sell enough cigarettes to make payments to the states. That shouldn't be the role of government. (McMaster) has said this is one of the most disgraceful abuses of the legal system that he's ever seen.'"

The Attorney General admitted directly that the states are addicted to the tobacco money: "'Now states are addicted to this money,' Walker said. 'The state, for better or for worse -- we are wedded now to those payments.'"

The Rest of the Story

This is public health???

No - This is the mess that the Attorneys General who signed the MSA have created. As the states are increasingly coming to recognize openly, this is a scheme by which the states have become partners with Big Tobacco in protecting the major companies' profits in order to protect their own financial solvency. And this dependency on smokers to fund critical state programs and services has created an incentive for states not to take any actions that would substantially decrease cigarette sales.

Moreover, the scheme now directly threatens the health and well-being of the public, as reductions in expected payments are apparently going to result in the elimination or severe cutting of social service programs upon which the public has become dependent.

Funny - you didn't hear about this aspect of the story when the Attorneys General addressed the media last week and boasted about how great they and the MSA were in reducing youth smoking rates. Unfortunately, this is the rest of the story.

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