COLUMBUS -- Once a national leader in the battle against tobacco, Ohio has surrendered some of its hard-fought gains, anti-smoking activists argued Thursday.
In the wake of a poor report card from the American Lung Association, Ohio activists renewed their call for hikes in tobacco-related taxes to fund smoking cessation programs and to keep the toll-free, state-run Quitline in operation.
In last year's budget, state lawmakers continued funding for enforcement of the voter-approved ban on smoking at bars, restaurants, offices, and other indoor public venues.
But funding for cessation programs disappeared once the Ohio Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the state could seize tobacco settlement funds from a foundation it created and use the money for other purposes.
"Last year, we were on life support," said Shelly Kiser, advocacy director of the American Lung Association in Ohio. "This year, lawmakers pulled the plug."
As the state turns its focus more toward prevention under its rethinking of Medicaid, advocates are hoping the concept can include greater emphasis on smoking prevention and cessation.
They are asking the state to increase the cigarette tax, which raises more than $1 billion a year for the state coffers, or raise the tax on cigars, chewing tobacco, and other noncigarette products to equal that on cigarettes.
Absent that, they hope lawmakers would consider dedicating 5 percent of the existing cigarette tax to anti-smoking efforts.
Tax increases, however, have been a nonstarter in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. Mr. Kasich and lawmakers are planning to do a midcycle look this year at the state's $55.8 billion, two-year budget enacted last year.
"We've lost a lot of funding," said Stu Kerr, tobacco program coordinator with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. "We've got to get that funding back because clearly the state takes in money from the sale of tobacco, but the state down the road pays out hospital costs, which are horrendous."
In a report released Thursday, the American Lung Association graded Ohio "F" for tobacco cessation efforts, "D" for tobacco taxation, and "F" for insurance coverage of smoking cessation programs.
The one bright spot was Ohio's grade of "A" for its indoor smoking law. But even that is in question given a case pending before the Ohio Supreme Court challenging the law's constitutionality and its enforcement.
Tess Pollick, spokesman for the Department of Health, said the state might be able to drag out its federal grant funding the Quitline because call volume has been lower recently. It is also applying for another grant.
The current budget holds $1 million for enforcement of the smoking ban.
"It's important to look at the whole picture of tobacco," Ms. Pollick said. "The Quitline is a wonderful tool, but we're also getting at other factors. People smoke when they get stressed by a tough economy and a loss of a job, and that's also being addressed. We approach it with a holistic approach to identify the factors that cause smoking and the tools to help people quit."
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.