Opinion

Help goes up in smoke

If you want to kick the smoking habit, you won't get any help from the state this year.

With state budget cuts and Gov. Mark Sanford's veto of the cigarette tax increase, the state will devote no resources to anti-smoking programs. The bill passed to raise the lowest-in-the-nation 7-cent cigarette tax by 50 cents would have allocated the first $5 million in revenues from the tax to smoking prevention and cessation programs.

But the governor's veto and the failure of lawmakers to override it canceled that proposal. Then, last month, lawmakers cut the $2 million the state was investing in anti-smoking efforts; so, as of now, the state will spend no money on the programs.

That means a state "quit line" where smokers could call to get advice will provide only basic assistance, paid for with a $250,000 federal grant. Operators of the quit line say they will focus solely on pregnant women and those on Medicaid.

Youth anti-smoking programs, such as the student-operated Rage Against the Haze, will have to raise their own money.

The $2 million the state had invested in anti-smoking programs ranked it 45th among the states. While South Carolina has received $364 million from its $910 million settlement with tobacco companies to pay the cost of providing health care to smokers, it has spent just $5.4 million of that money on anti-smoking efforts.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends spending levels on anti-smoking efforts based on the number of smokers in the state, said South Carolina should spend between $23 million and $62 million a year on the programs. Instead, settlement money has been spent mostly on Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor that would have been funded in large part by the proposed increase in the cigarette tax.

About 15 percent of the settlement money has gone to tobacco farmers. Another 10 percent has gone to the state Department of Commerce for water and sewer projects, and 2 percent went to local governments for water and sewer projects.

The 15 percent that went to tobacco farmers would have been more than enough to fund a year's worth of anti-smoking programs at levels recommended by the CDC.

Raising the cigarette tax, as supporters noted time and again, not only would have provided money for anti-smoking efforts but also would have discouraged teen-agers from taking up the habit. Now, however, the already pitiful funding for anti-smoking programs has been reduced to nothing.

If youth smoking rates, which have declined in recent years, begin to inch up, we'll know one reason why.

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