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Anti-smoking forces press to restore funding for tobacco control

 The Connecticut State Capitol.
Chion Wolf
/
WNPR
The Connecticut State Capitol.

Connecticut has a history of collecting billions of dollars from the tobacco industry and smokers — and not using those resources to fight addiction.

Gov. Ned Lamont insisted, during his first year in office in 2019, that this needs to change.

And now that Connecticut coffers are flush with cash — much more so than they were two years ago — anti-smoking forces are challenging the governor and legislators to reverse what many call an embarrassing and dangerous trend.

“If we’re able to put some money into providing and maintaining prevention and cessation programs, that will be a huge public health win,” said Bryte Johnson, Connecticut director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “It will save the state money and, more important, it will save the state lives.”

The network launched an outreach effort this fall, not only to the Lamont administration but also to leaders of the legislature’s budget-writing and public health committees, asking them to restore at least $12 million for tobacco control starting with next fiscal year’s General Fund.

Connecticut currently is tied with Tennessee for dead last among all states in terms of per capita spending on tobacco control, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends minimum annual spending for each state based upon its population, poverty levels and other socio-economic factors. The campaign ranks states based on how closely they conform to CDC recommendations.

The centers recommend Connecticut spend $32 million annually to fight addiction and to educate youngsters to avoid tobacco products. The state currently budgets nothing in its General Fund.

Max Reiss, Lamont’s communications director, said there are other programs that help fight smoking that may not be spotted so easily.

“The state of Connecticut provides millions in support each year to fight tobacco use and to help those who suffer with addiction,” Reiss said. “These efforts are not a one-size-fits-all approach and are spread across multiple agencies.”

Connecticut does dedicate a little more than $3 million in federal Medicaid funds this year toward tobacco control, but that only assists a limited population. It also gave $1 million — from one-time federal pandemic relief funds — to help municipal health districts with this problem this year.

Connecticut’s track record is not only poor but illogical, Johnson said, adding that tobacco-related illnesses cost the public and private sectors here a combined $2 billion annually. Other states that have been more aggressive in tobacco control, such as Washington, have seen a five-to-one return on their investment through reduced health care costs.

According to the CDC, just under 30% of Connecticut youth had tried a tobacco product in 2019, while 4,900 adults died annually here from smoking-related illnesses.

“This is an entirely preventable issue. This is an entirely preventable problem,” Johnson added. “We just haven’t prioritized it, and that needs to change.”

Lamont, who took office in January 2019, said something similar eight months later when he and then-N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo met at the executive residence in Hartford to discuss a ban on flavored vaping products.

When asked about the prospects of banning vaping products given Connecticut’s checkered past at tobacco-control efforts, Lamont said he wanted to reverse course in that area as well.

“I know that over the last 10 years we’ve been siphoning off some of the money that’s supposed to go to tobacco cessation to other things,” he said. “That’s going to stop.”

Since 2000, Connecticut has received more than $2 billion from a multi-state legal settlement with the nation’s five largest tobacco manufacturers.

But only about $200 million has gone into the Tobacco and Health Trust, a special fund set up by legislators to fund anti-tobacco efforts. And lawmakers ultimately raided more than $113 million of that $200 million to help with budget-balancing efforts.

By 2018, legislators had suspended indefinitely any contributions to the trust program.

Connecticut also is tied with New York for the second-highest cigarette tax in the nation at $4.35 per pack. That and other levies on tobacco products generated roughly $350 million last fiscal year.

Johnson noted that even budgeting $12 million per year, though less than 40% of what the CDC recommends, would be a huge step up — not only from the last few years.

Even before regular allocations for this purpose were suspended in 2018, Connecticut was typically budgeting $3 million or $4 million per year to fight smoking.

Also, the state’s fiscal position has improved radically in the past three years.

Connecticut has amassed a record-setting $3 billion budget reserve — currently at its legal maximum at 15% of annual operating expenses. That’s due largely to a resurgent stock market and a new savings program that prevents the state from spending a portion of income tax receipts tied to capital gains and other investment earnings.

Revenues have been so flush that the state, unable to put any more in its rainy day fund, recently put an extra $1.6 billion of surplus in its cash-starved pension system. A $12 million allocation for tobacco control would represent just 1/17th of 1% of the General Fund.

Reiss said the administration hasn’t ruled out bolstering tobacco control funds next fiscal year.

And so far, the early response from state officials has been more supportive.

“This is a different economic environment than we had just a few years ago when we were living desperately year-to-year,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chairman of the Public Health Committee, who added the legislature also needs to revisit all “chronically under-funded mental health and addiction services.”

“This is something that we need to re-invest in,” said Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, longtime co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee. “It costs us much less in the long run, and the damage is much less to families.”

The 2017 legislature suspended the tobacco funding as part of a bipartisan budget deal. But it’s not just Democrats open to revisiting that decision.

Republican Rep. William Petit of Plainville, a physician and ranking House member on the Public Health Committee, said Connecticut’s longstanding reluctance to fight tobacco addiction aggressively has been a source of frustration for the state’s medical society. “They felt their voices weren’t heard,” he said. “They felt like they were getting nowhere.”

And Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme, the ranking GOP senator on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said Connecticut should be able to bolster tobacco control efforts without having to divert resources from any other vital programs.

Declining interest rates have enabled the state to refinance bonded debt, reducing interest costs. At the same time, supplemental pension payments mean the required contributions in these areas also should be dropping in the next few years, Formica said.

And just as Connecticut has trimmed its debt costs, he said, investments in tobacco control should produce long-term health care savings.

“To me it would seem logical,” Formica said.