Vermont Quits: Part Four - The Tobacco Settlement & The Funds
01/15/09 5:30PM By Neal Charnoff
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All this week, VPR is examining the issue of smoking in Vermont.
Ten years ago, a landmark legal settlement with the tobacco industry paved the way for more money to flow into stop-smoking efforts.
Today, we look back at the settlement, and how the tobacco funds are being used.
It's a chilly afternoon on the Barre-Montpelier Road. Christopher Osborne of Barre is taking a smoke break outside of Friendly's Restaurant.
(Ozborne) "Well I've actually tried quitting a couple of times, first time was a couple of days, the second time I lasted about a week."
(Charnoff) Not too long ago, Osborne wouldn't have had to take his cigarette outside.
But tobacco prevention efforts have changed the landscape for smokers.
(Man) "There's no smoking in this building, Miss Tramell."
(Tramell) "What are you gonna do, charge me with smoking?"
(Charnoff) If the 1992 film "Basic Instinct" were made today, Sharon Stone's character might not be charged with smoking, but she would be asked to take her cigarette outdoors.
That's because smoking has been banned in public buildings and most workplaces.
(Man) "Camel reds, please."
(Man) "No thanks."
(Charnoff) Smokers have also faced near-annual tax increases on cigarettes. Research has shown that raising taxes does contribute to a decrease in smoking.
And there's been an influx of settlement money into tobacco prevention programs.
Attorney General Bill Sorrell led the effort to have Vermont join the 1997 lawsuit brought by dozens of states against Big Tobacco.
The hope was to recover the cost of tobacco-related health problems.
But Sorrell says the lawsuit wasn't just about the money.
(Sorrell) "What we wanted them to do was to stop lying about the addictive quality of their products. We wanted them to stop marketing to kids. We wanted them to stop making false health claims about their products and misleading smokers and other would-be smokers."
(Charnoff) The tobacco settlement was key in helping to change the social climate surrounding smoking.
A recent national study ranked Vermont seventh in the country for funding programs aimed at reducing smoking rates.
Sorrell says Vermont is doing an adequate job of spending the settlement funds.
Vermont receives roughly $40 million a year, which it divides into 2 separate funds.
$25 million is devoted to public health, with about $5 million going into the Health Department's tobacco program.
(Sorrell) "That's about half of what the Centers for Disease Control says is a minimum amount for a good comprehensive tobacco control program in a state of our size."
(Charnoff) And the state is receiving an additional 15 million dollars a year through 2017. That money is currently being used to fill gaps in the Medicaid budget.
The Attorney General says the legislature is being short-sighted by not investing the funds.
(Sorrel) "We're using those moneys that are going to go away in eight or nine years for ongoing annual expenses, we're gonna fall off a cliff here in 2017 and that money's going to go away."
(Charnoff) Tina Zuk is with the non-profit Coalition For a Tobacco Free Vermont.
Zuk says the Legislature had the foresight to establish a Tobacco Trust Fund in 1999. ..money that would be saved for tobacco control and cessation programs.
But she says in 2001, after only three years, the legislature stopped adding money to the fund.
In fact, legislators have tapped into the fund to prop up the state budget. Zuk fears this could put the future of the tobacco program at risk, and jeopardize the gains that have been made.
(Zuk) "We've gotten about 15% of our adult smokers to quit since the program started and that's resulted in a savings of about 4 to $5 million every year just in Medicaid costs."
(Charnoff) A big concern for health officials is that more than a third of low-income Vermonters and those with mental health issues are still smoking.
And while the youth smoking rate has dropped significantly, there are concerns that those numbers have leveled off.
Sheri Lynn is the Tobacco Control Chief for the Vermont Health Department.
Lynn says that because smoking has been moved outdoors, it gives young people the impression that smoking is a commonplace activity. Lynn hopes the department can change perceptions through education.
(Lynn) "By putting time and resources into trying to change that misperception, down the road we are going to save, because youth will not start smoking, they won't get addicted."
(Charnoff) Tina Zuk says the legislature needs to keep funding to the control program in order to continue to reduce the number of smokers in Vermont.
(Zuk) "You know, we shouldn't be callous to the smokers either it's a very addictive habit, its hard to break, and that's why it's important for us to fund the tobacco control program so we have something for them."
(Charnoff) Overall, Zuk and other health advocates do feel that Vermont has been a leader in providing resources for smokers who want to quit, and in making good progress toward creating a tobacco-free Vermont.
To find out more about quit smoking programs in Vermont, go to our website, vpr.net
Tomorrow in our series, one former smoker reflects on life before and after quitting.
AP Photo: Carolyn Kaster