South Carolina ranks last in anti-smoking programs

WASHINGTON -- South Carolina is spending less money than any other state on anti-smoking programs, despite having one of the nation's highest smoking rates, a prominent health group said Tuesday.

Smoking kills 5,900 South Carolinians a year and extracts $568 per household in smoking-related heath care costs. But the state allocated just $1 million in the current fiscal year to get people to quit smoking and to prevent people from starting the habit.

"South Carolina has been lagging behind the rest of the country in funding tobacco prevention for too long," said Peter Fisher, vice president of state issues with Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The S.C. General Assembly set aside no money for anti-smoking initiatives in its 2008-2009 budget. A federal grant funds the $1 million state effort.

More than one-fifth of adult South Carolinians smoke, compared with a nationwide rate of 19.8, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We're doing the best we can to bring that (level) down," said Mary Kathryn Craft, a spokeswoman for the state division of tobacco prevention and control in the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"We have made progress, but we do face challenges, and the funding situation is one of those challenges," Craft said.

South Carolina spent $3.3 million in the 2007-2008 fiscal year that ended June 30, with $2 million allocated by the Legislature.

The state received $910 million from a 1998 settlement of a lawsuit South Carolina and 45 other states filed against cigarette manufacturers over treating people with smoking-related diseases.

The $910 million went into four state trust funds, from which the General Assembly is responsible for appropriating money for smoking-prevention programs.

Legislators have used only a small fraction of the money for that purpose, diverting tens of millions of dollars for other purposes.

South Carolina's cigarette tax of 7 cents per pack is the country's lowest. It hasn't been raised since 1977.