Less prevention money, more youth smoking

After raiding the tobacco settlement, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and an array of legislators should read the startling study on youth smoking released last week.

According to the study, conducted by the state’s Health Department and others, one-third of Minnesota’s young adults ages 18 to 24 consider themselves “established” smokers – twice the rate of adults over 25. Statistics on “social” smokers, overlooked by previous studies, are even more alarming. Many health advocates argue today’s social smoker has a good chance of becoming tomorrow’s established smoker.

It is ironic that nearly five years after Minnesota’s $6.1 billion tobacco settlement, youth smoking rates are high. In the agreement, the state and the tobacco industry settled on a one-time payment of $1.3 billion with annual payments of roughly $200 million over the next 25 years. Much of the money went into an endowment to fund anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teens and young adults, age groups bearing the brunt of the nearly $200 million spent annually to market cigarettes in Minnesota.

Last year, all that changed when state leaders confronted a $4.2 billion budget deficit. In a plan proposed by Gov. Pawlenty and passed with bipartisan support from the Legislature, the state’s general fund absorbed the $1.1 billion endowment to balance the budget. This essentially halted what had been an aggressive effort to combat smoking among young adults, credited by many for reducing high school smoking by 11 percent.

Minnesota is hardly the only state to follow this path. Few governors resisted raiding tobacco settlement funds to balance their budgets. Many have promoted the sale of “tobacco bonds,” cashing in future anti-tobacco programs for one-time budgetary Band-Aids.

The study is a stark reminder of how costly such measures might become. Although higher rates of tobacco-related illnesses and increased health-care costs might not be as immediate as a budget deficit, they do not deserve less

consideration. Pawlenty and the Legislature would do well to restore adequate funding for tobacco prevention.