COLUMBUS — Six years after lawmakers angrily dismantled Ohio’s anti-smoking foundation after it tried to block government’s confiscation of its funds, the state wants to renew its war on tobacco.
“Ohio once was a national leader in smoking-cessation efforts, and we need to take up that cause once again,” Gov. John Kasich said during his State of the State address Monday.
He announced the investment of $26.9 million in tobacco settlement dollars over five years for smoking prevention, cessation, and enforcement programs.
In 2000, the state created the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation to use part of its settlement with major cigarette makers such as Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to fight smoking. But it wasn’t long before the state started diverting the annual checks to other needs.
In 2008, while trying to find money for a $1.57 billion state stimulus package to jump-start a lethargic Ohio economy, then-Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and the Republican-controlled General Assembly went after $230 million of the $271 million already in the foundation’s account.
When the foundation’s board balked, Mr. Strickland and lawmakers responded by disbanding it.
“With the loss of the tobacco settlement revenue to other budget needs in recent years, investment in tobacco-use prevention and cessation in Ohio has bottomed out,” said Jeff Stephens, spokesman for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.
“After years of decline in Ohio’s smoking rates, the past four years of attrition in tobacco-control funding contributed to an alarming rise in the state’s smoking rate, pushing it back up to 23.5 percent from its low point of 20 percent,” he said. “Ohio now has the tenth-highest smoking rate in the country.”
The $26.9 million Mr. Kasich referenced on Monday and $8 million that he proposed for Attorney General Mike DeWine to enforce the settlement’s terms will come from money placed in escrow in 2004 as part of a dispute with tobacco companies. The arbiter in that case recently ruled for the state, according to Kasich budget director Tim Keen.
Current House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) cast one of just 10 “no” votes in the 99-member chamber opposing the foundation’s death sentence in 2008.
“It’s ridiculous for us to have deprived the people of this state of that program and to take the money away,” he said. “But of course, if you’re $8 billion in debt, you might do any damn fool thing.”
Holly Kowalczyk, a registered respiratory therapist and certified tobacco treatment specialist for ProMedica Tobacco Treatment Services, praised Mr. Kasich’s decision.
“I could not be more thrilled,” she said. “When we had some funding, so many programs were available in our area, which made a huge dent in students using tobacco and the number of adults who chose to quit using tobacco.”
ProMedica and St. Luke’s continued to put resources into tobacco treatment and cessation, but hope a renewed emphasis on the state’s part will add to that.
“It was tremendously sad when the money was allocated to other sources,” Ms. Kowalczyk said. “When the money went away, so did those jobs, the people who trained so hard found themselves without jobs. There were no opportunities.”
Although the smoking-prevention foundation is now defunct, the settlement with cigarette makers continues to generate checks to Ohio. The latest was about $295 million. But the money goes to investors after the Strickland administration sold off future payments in 2007 for a lump sum to underwrite an expansion of the homestead-exemption property tax break.
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