Missouri lawmakers should use new settlement money the state receives from about 40 small tobacco companies for efforts to reduce smoking among young people, state Attorney General Jay Nixon said Tuesday.
Nixon said Missouri’s smoking rate is the nation’s third-highest, with more tobacco-using high school students — 30.3 percent — than adults smoking statewide, or 26.6 percent.
Speaking to an Advanced Placement government class Tuesday morning at Hickman High School, Nixon praised the successes of states like New York, Florida and Massachusetts with tobacco prevention programs already in place and stressed the urgency of tailoring such initiatives to the growing needs of Missouri.
“The number of Missouri teens who now smoke who will end up dying because of smoking-related causes is about equal to the entire population of Springfield, Mo.,” Nixon said. “That’s almost 150,000 teenagers smoking today that will die of smoking-related illnesses.”
Backed by representatives from the American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the Boone County Coalition for Tobacco Concerns, Nixon urged collaboration among government and private agencies to target prevention efforts to middle school and early high school students.
Missouri has received $822 million to date in settlement money from a 1998 agreement between tobacco manufacturers and 46 states. But Missouri has failed to use it to keep young people from smoking, Nixon said.
State officials throughout the nation said at the time of the settlement that their goal was to use the money to recover the cost of treating sick smokers, but the General Accounting Office found that just 24 percent of last year’s settlement earnings was spent on health-related initiatives nationwide.
States plan to spend even less, 17 percent of the annual proceeds from the settlement, on health programs this year, the GAO said in a March report.
Nixon said Missouri had funneled its tobacco-settlement money into the state budget during tough financial times. He said the new money is from settlements with about 40 small tobacco companies that joined the 1998 agreement after litigation by Missouri. He said the new additions will bring about $7 million to Missouri each year and should go for teen smoking prevention.
If the Nixon-backed initiative is approved, the Legislature would create a commission to select programs designed to reduce youth smoking. Missouri’s health department does have educational efforts to fight tobacco use among young people, but it relies on federal rather than state money.
“I think we’re doing the best we can with limited resources,” said Janet Wilson, head of the department’s health promotion unit. But there’s no question that states that have invested in strong teen smoking prevention programs have seen results, she said.
Later Tuesday, Nixon delivered a near-identical message to a health class of sixth-graders at Holman Middle School in suburban St Louis.
And 11-year-old Nikolas Fischer hopes that will be the case. He said he was glad the attorney general was trying to spend tobacco-related money on tobacco-related issues. He questioned why the state had spent millions of it elsewhere.
“I think a lot of it should have been spent to prevent kids from smoking,” he said.
The Associated Press and Missourian reporter Anya Litvak contributed to this report.