A miserable grade

Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 11:27 p.m.
For the second year in a row, Florida has received an "F" for its inadequate efforts to stop teenagers from taking up smoking. And it also received a failing grade for having one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation.
It has not always been so. The late Gov. Lawton Chiles was one of the first governors in the nation ready to sue the tobacco companies. When the companies settled - resulting in about $417 million paid to Florida annually to help pay the state's share of medical costs for smoking-related diseases - Chiles persuaded the Legislature to establish an anti-smoking program aimed at teens that would become a model for the nation.
Students Working Against Tobacco produced in-your-face ads and other programs that were largely responsible for a 58 percent drop in middle school smoking and a 37 percent reduction in high school smokers between 1998 and 2003.
Such statistics weren't good enough for the Legislature, which didn't want to go after tobacco companies in the first place. The funding for the $70-million-a-year anti-smoking program has been slashed to $1 million.
So, for two years, the state has turned a blind eye to nicotine addiction. And as a result, the American Lung Association of Florida said that one in 13 students in the state is addicted to cigarettes as early as middle school, and 30,000 Florida residents die each year of smoking-related diseases.
"It's shameful that Gov. Bush and the Florida Legislature allow this to go on," Belle DeKoff, president of the American Lung Association of Florida, told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Florida's government operates on the cheap, so any increase in the cigarette tax is highly unlikely. A spokesman for House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said that Bense is "definitely not in favor of raising taxes, especially one he views as regressive and more negatively affecting lower-income people who tend to be smokers more often."
Of course, it might be helpful to lower-income people if they were discouraged from spending money on a luxury that's also viewed as a health hazard. And, it should be noted, the $417 million in settlement money to the state each year should be devoted to programs that will lower Florida's health costs in the future.
And because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each pack of cigarettes sold in the United States costs the country $7.18 in medical-care costs and lost productivity, Florida should want to do its part to reduce the number of packs sold.
While Bense and his colleagues wring their hands about taking cigarettes out of the mouths of the poor, legislators in other states aren't worried. Ten states increased cigarette taxes last year. Even tobacco-loving Virginia increased cigarette taxes by a whopping 700 percent. (But considering the starting tax was less than 3 cents a pack, the resulting 20-cents-a-pack tax is still far below the national average.) State Lung Association officials issued two modest challenges last week to state leaders: Raise the state cigarette tax to the national average of 84 cents and increase spending on tobacco-prevention programs from the present $1 million to $7 million.
The $7 million is but one-tenth the level of the program's previous funding. And it is also far below the minimum of $25 million recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Florida's smoking-prevention programs. But it would still be a major step for the state.
Legislators need not worry about voter backlash if referendums in three other states last year are any indication. Sixty-one percent of voters in Colorado approved a 64-cent-a-pack increase to 84 cents. A 70 percent increase in Montana's tax passed by an even wider margin. Oklahoma voters, by a 53 percent-to-47 percent margin, endorsed a 347 percent increase to $1.03 a pack.
Legislators might want to do something about Florida's low tax in their coming session. Otherwise, the Lung Association might decide to take the issue to the voters in a proposed constitutional amendment.
Faced with legislative inaction, the Lung Association joined other groups in placing an amendment on the ballot a few years ago that banned smoking in the workplace, including restaurants. It passed handily.
Faced with legislative inaction on the cigarette tax, it's an option those groups still have.

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