Addictive cash from tobacco settlement

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

The mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, has come up with a way of defraying the costs of the Rampart police scandal: The people who sue for wrongful arrest, imprisonment and injury can be paid off with $300 million expected from the 1998 tobacco settlement. Around the country, stories like this are common. Need roads? Need water projects? Calm yourself: The tobacco companies will pay.

This is not what the tobacco settlement was supposed to deliver. The state attorneys general who negotiated the deal argued that tobacco firms, not smokers, were responsible for addiction and that industry therefore should compensate taxpayers for the cost of treating patients with smoking-related illnesses. Having presented smokers as victims of pro-tobacco advertising, the states were obliged to show support for anti-tobacco ads; a portion of the compensation paid by the tobacco industry thus should be devoted to discouraging teen-agers from smoking.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that states should set aside a quarter of the $246 billion in compensation in order to mount effective anti-smoking programs. A few states - notably Mississippi, Massachusetts and most recently Ohio - have done more than that; but nationwide only about 7 percent of the money has been preserved for anti-smoking efforts. In Maryland, which has announced its intention to spend a large portion of the funds on cancer research and education, Gov. Parris Glendening last week warned against a tendency to ``look at this as pork barrel to be distributed according to legislative district.'' Not only that, the states seem to have discovered a new respect for the tobacco industry. Recently the American Legacy Foundation, an outfit created as part of the 1998 settlement to discourage teen smoking, unveiled two advertisements. When tobacco executives complained that these were excessively hard-hitting, several state attorneys general agreed - and the ads were killed.

When the 1998 deal was concluded, cynics suggested that the tobacco industry once again had bought off its opponents: The multibillion-dollar payout to state governments would dull the states' enthusiasm for measures that actually might prevent smoking. Two years on, that remains an exaggeration; the settlement at least has forced a rise in cigarette prices, which in turn has discouraged teen-age consumption. Unfortunately, the buy-off theory is only an exaggeration. It is not completely wrong.

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