Tobacco settlement board warns against complacency

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A board that recommends how Connecticut should spend part of its legal settlement with major tobacco companies is urging state lawmakers not to become complacent about combating smoking, insisting that declining rates don’t tell the full story.

The annual report from the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund Board of Trustees, to be presented Monday to state lawmakers, estimates 15.5 percent of Connecticut adults currently smoke cigarettes, down from 22.1 percent in 1990. But rates climb when the when specific populations are taken into account, such as people with lower education and income, blacks and Hispanics, people with behavioral health issues, pregnant women and criminal offenders.

The board mentions in the report its concerns about youths experimenting with “alternative tobacco products” as well, including flavored cigarettes and hookahs.

“Yes, we have made inroads,” said Patricia Checko, a board member and anti-smoking advocate. “But as I frequently like to say to people, don’t let averages fool you.”

According to Checko, who is also a board member of Mobilize Against Tobacco for Connecticut’s Health or the MATCH Coalition, about 36 to 40 percent of Medicaid recipients smoke, while 80 to 90 percent of people who enter Connecticut’s prisons are smokers. Meanwhile, she said people with behavioral health issues make up 44 percent of all cigarette smokers in the state.

The trust fund board is scheduled to meet with the General Assembly’s Appropriations and Public Health Committees to recommend spending about $3.5 million of the state’s approximately $140 million annual share from the 15-year-old legal settlement. This year, the group is linking its recommended disbursements with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s suggestions on how Connecticut can best prevent and reduce tobacco usage.

The list includes $1.4 million for community intervention programs; $385,650 for mass-reach communications; $1.2 million for cessation programming; $351,183 for policy evaluation; and $175,000 for administrative costs.

Anne Foley, chairman of the trust fund board and undersecretary for policy development and planning at the state’s Office of Policy and Management, said the group is recommending that funding be awarded to vendors with experience in working with higher tobacco-utilizing populations.

The amount of settlement money dedicated each year to smoking prevention and cessation programs has been a point of contention over the years by anti-smoking advocates. To date, OPM documents show the state has received a total of $1.98 billion so far from the agreement between large tobacco companies and 46 state attorneys general. The bulk of the money, however, has been deposited into the state’s general fund. Some money has been spent on other health-related expenses, including Medicaid programs.

Of the $1.98 billion, Checko estimates a total of only $28 million has been spent to combat smoking in Connecticut. Most of that spending has occurred in recent years.

Foley said the board currently expects $3.5 million from Connecticut’s 2015 settlement payment will be deposited into the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund in April. However, given projections of future state budget deficits, there is a chance that state lawmakers may seek to use those funds for other purposes. The General Assembly convenes on Jan. 7 and balancing a new two-year budget will be one of lawmakers’ top priorities.

“It’s always the elephant in the room,” Checko said.

But she stresses the state must continue to combat tobacco usage, which remains a principal cause of early death in Connecticut.

“It’s not going away. Every day they are recruiting,” Checko said. “We have to stay vigilant and continue to have programs that prevent and control.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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