Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Massachusetts Senate Uses a Big Tobacco Tactic: Votes Not to Allocate Master Settlement Agreement Money to Smoking Prevention and Cessation; In that Light, the Flavor Ban is Disingenuous

Anyone who thought the Massachusetts state Senate's probable passage of a bill tonight that will ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes and menthol tobacco cigarettes is motivated by a pure desire to protect kids and reduce tobacco-related diseases is mistaken. The supporters of this legislation showed their true colors tonight by rejecting an amendment that would have required that the state allocate a mere 10% of the money it receives from the Master Settlement Agreement to smoking prevention and cessation programs.

It was quite a sight to witness. Senator after senator got up and spoke about how terrible smoking is and how we have to protect kids from tobacco and nicotine and fight Big Tobacco and their devious tactics.

And then, they used a classic Big Tobacco tactic themselves from voting to continue the diversion of nearly 100% of the Master Settlement Agreement money to non-tobacco-related causes.

It seems disingenuous to me to put on a grand political show about how much you care about the problem of tobacco use and smoking and nicotine addiction and how much we need to protect kids from Big Tobacco and its deceptive tactics and then to follow that up by immediately using a classic Big Tobacco strategy yourself and by refusing to put your money where your mouth is by adequately funding smoking prevention and cessation programs in the state.

To be honest, I stood motionless and in shock as I watched the roll called and senator after senator voted to continue the diversion of MSA funding. Ironically, it was mostly Democratic senators who voted against the amendment and Republican senators who voted for the amendment, which was sponsored by Senator Bruce Tarr (R - First Essex and Middlesex).

The Rest of the Story

In 1992, Massachusetts voters approved an initiative measure (Question 1) that increased the cigarette tax by 25 cents per pack and allocated the money to tobacco prevention and cessation programs. The program was funded at a level of more than $100 million for the first year and approximately $96 million the second year. However, Governor Jane Swift slashed the budget by 95%, diverting funds away from tobacco prevention and cessation and towards the general budget, violating the will of the voters.

In fact, getting states to divert cigarette tax revenue funding away from tobacco control was a favored tactic of the tobacco industry. They succeeded in convincing Governor Pete Wilson to do this in California prior to Governors Swift and Weld doing this in Massachusetts.

In 1998, the state of Massachusetts entered into a settlement of its lawsuit against Big Tobacco, under which the tobacco companies agreed to make an annual payment of funds to the state. This was called the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). Although the intent of the MSA funding was to provide money for smoking prevention and cessation (since that was the topic of the lawsuit), the state has diverted most of these funds away from tobacco-related purposes.

So between the Question 1 revenue and the MSA revenue, the state is bringing in millions of dollars each year that are supposed to go to tobacco prevention and cessation, but which instead have been diverted to the general budget, violating the will of the people and the intent of the state's lawsuit against Big Tobacco and its subsequent settlement of the lawsuit.

Senator Tarr's proposal would have re-allocated merely 10% of the MSA revenue to tobacco prevention and cessation. As he said on the Senate floor, theoretically 100% of this revenue should be spent on tobacco-related programs, but at least approving a 10% allocation would demonstrate that the Senate views tobacco use prevention and cessation as a priority, as senators had said throughout the entire first part of the session, prior to the amendment being introduced.

Well, right after the amendment was introduced, they suddenly changed their tune. All of a sudden, everything they had said previously was thrown out the window. They voted to continue the unconscionable diversion of almost all the MSA funding away from tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

In 2019, Massachusetts received $236.6 million from the MSA. However, it allocated only $4.2 million to tobacco prevention and cessation. This represents a measly 1.8% of the MSA funds.

According to CDC best practice recommendations, Massachusetts should be spending a minimum of $46 million a year on tobacco prevention. An allocation of 10% of MSA funds to tobacco control would represent an expenditure of $24 million, which is still only about half of the CDC recommended funding level.

The rest of the story is that the hypocrisy of the state Senate's actions tonight is striking. After talking about how much they care about reducing tobacco-related disease and death, the Senate adopted a Big Tobacco tactic and voted to continue the diversion of MSA funding away from tobacco prevention. Tonight was a great display of politics, but not of public health.

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