TEXAS SETTLEMENT: Health Advocates Make Little Progress
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reported yesterday morning on the epic struggle to stake out part of "the largest single settlement in human history" -- the roughly $17.3 billion pledged by Big Tobacco to reimburse Texas across the next 25 years for the costs of treating smoking-related illness. The battle pits anti-smoking advocates against "two of the most powerful men in the Texas legislature": Sen. Bill Ratliff (R), chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Rob Junell (R), chairman of the state House Appropriations Committee. The American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids are asking for a "relatively small" share, about $60 million per year or 1% of the total settlement, for anti-smoking programs. For inspiration, the anti-smoking advocates evoke California's $100 million-per-year tobacco prevention program, which has helped it achieve the second-lowest smoking rate in the nation after Utah. The advocates say the most important element of California's success is its well-funded anti-tobacco advertising program. But Goodwyn reports that they're meeting a wall of opposition in the legislature. Ratliff said, "Frankly, I'm not sure that there's a teenager on the face of the earth that hasn't at least heard that smoking is bad for your health. Problem is, most teenagers are invisible and bullet- proof, indestructible -- at least in their own minds, and I don't know how much you're going to change that."
Divide That by Six
Ratliff and Junell want to allocate one-sixth of the asking price, or $10 million per year, for an smoking prevention pilot program in a few counties. But Ed Carter, president of the Texas chapter of the American Lung Association, says that's just not enough. "The tobacco industry spends over $360 million a year in advertising in Texas, much of it aimed at children ... what kind of a counterbalance is that?" Carter asked.
Behind the Scenes
NPR reports that some believe the tobacco industry is wielding a carefully concealed hand to encourage the political resistance to using settlement dollars for smoking prevention. Nothing as direct as campaign contributions or cronyism, but rather a more insidious scheme in which legislators hide behind the "cover" of influential good guys -- in this case the Texas Medical Association and the Heart Association. These two health groups used to back the advocates' anti-smoking proposal but have changed their mind to oppose it. What do these powerful health care lobbies have to gain in opposing a public health program? A University of California professor explained how it worked in California: the tobacco industry told the California Medical Association it would help get malpractice laws changed if the CMA would kill the anti-tobacco program. In Texas, the Heart Association and the Texas Medical Association, both of which went back on their original support of the $60 million-per-year anti- smoking campaign, deny having "cut any back-room deals with the tobacco companies." Instead, they say, they simply "didn't want to cross" Junell or Ratliff. Both chairmen deny having been influenced by the tobacco industry "in any way." In fact, Junell is angry with the anti-tobacco accusations. "They've played pretty hard-ball with me," calling him at the office and at home and writing "letters that are pretty strident. ... I am not a person that reacts well to having somebody in my face."
To date, the anti-tobacco lobbyists have made little progress in their efforts to lay claim to settlement funds. In response to advocates' description of the successful California anti-smoking program at a recent hearing, Rep. Talmadge Heflin (R) quipped that on a recent trip to San Diego he received a jay-walking warning ticket as policemen stood around smoking. At the end of the hearing, "Rob Junell was able to demonstrate to the anti- tobacco groups just how powerful he is." The appropriations committee voted 26-0 to approve the scaled-back version of the bill" ("Morning Edition," 4/15).