Steve Mullen: Hang on to your butts: Where there’s smokes, there’s fire

October 21, 2009 10:11:00 AM

Steve Mullen - smullen@cdispatch.com

 

There''s gonna be a huge warehouse sale in Tupelo next week -- and it ain''t on furniture. 

 

The state Tax Commission seized an estimated $20 million worth of cigarettes in a tax raid in April, and on Oct. 27, it plans to auction off its contraband to the highest bidders. 

 

We''re talking 948,697 cartons of smokes here, according to the sale list issued by the state auditor. That amounts to nearly 190 million individual cigarettes. 

 

It would take a pack-a-day smoker right around 26,000 years to burn through it all. Smoke up, Methuselah. 

 

That''s a lot of cancer sticks. 

 

The seizure is "the largest known discovery of contraband tobacco in U.S. history," the state Auditor''s Office trumpeted in a recent press release. State Auditor Stacey Pickering likes to joke that he''s "the largest cigarette distributor in the state of Mississippi." 

 

And distribute these cigarettes he will -- with the help of the Legislature, which passed a bill last session smoothing the way for the sale. 

 

Mississippi -- the state of Mississippi -- is about to put a million cartons of smokes on the street, at low, low prices. 

 

Seems ironic, especially considering that once upon a time, Mississippi was the leader in keeping people from smoking, not enabling them (in, albeit, a roundabout way). 

 

What a difference a decade makes. 

 

 

 

From leader to loser 

 

Back in 1999, Mississippi was still basking in the glow of winning its record 25-year, $4 billion settlement with the tobacco industry -- the first state to ever achieve such a feat. The state parlayed that judgment into one of the most ambitious smoking-cessation and prevention programs anywhere. 

 

Mississippi was first at something -- tobacco prevention. Over the next several years, the state spent $20 million annually on programs to keep kids off tobacco and to get grown-ups to quit. 

 

Maybe the biggest achievement was simply changing people''s perception about tobacco and its dangers, which the industry had fought so hard for so many years to conceal. "Most of all, we''ve changed the way people look at tobacco," former Attorney General Mike Moore said in an interview with National Public Radio last year. "You know, there''s no question anymore in anybody''s mind that it''s harmful and that it will kill you." 

 

Yet somewhere, things jumped off the track. Now, the state only spends half as much as it did on prevention. 

 

What happened? 

 

Politics. 

 

Gov. Haley Barbour, a former tobacco lobbyist, sued to end the $20 million funding arrangement. The funds had been administered by the private Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, headed by Moore, who had fought to win the money to begin with. Barbour argued that only the Legislature should spend state money. In 1997, the state Supreme Court agreed. 

 

So, the Legislature then did what it does all too often: half of what it should have. The year of the Supreme Court ruling, with a court freeze on the funding, the state didn''t spend a dime on smoking cessation programs. In 2008, it spent around $8 million. This year, it allocated $10.3 million, half of what had been spent during the Partnership years. (Even the Partnership spending compares poorly to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention''s formula, which recommends Mississippi spend $39.2 million annually on tobacco prevention.) 

 

 

 

A big problem 

 

But these are lean years. We can''t afford to teach kids not to smoke and help parents kick the habit, can we? 

 

In reality, how can we not afford to? 

 

The state Medicaid system spends $264 million each year just on smoking-related illnesses, according to the state Department of Health. That''s more than twice as much as the tobacco settlement brings in each year. (The total annual health care costs in Mississippi for smoking-caused illnesses is $719 million, the health department says.)  

 

Our $10.3 million allocation to help people not smoke looks particularly puny next to the $185.5 million the Health Department says the tobacco industry spends each year on marketing, in Mississippi alone, to keep people smoking. 

 

Smoking is a big problem. If no one smoked, there wouldn''t be a health care crisis; the state Medicaid program wouldn''t be on the verge of bankruptcy in Mississippi each year. 

 

Yes, things are getting better. The Legislature passed a 50-cent hike in its tobacco tax this year; more expensive cigarettes cause people to think about quitting, or not starting. (Of course, the specter of more expensive car tags was as much a reason for the hike as rising health costs.) 

 

And, more cities have passed smoking bans in public places. Locally, Starkville is part of the solution; Columbus is still part of the problem. 

 

Smoking is down nationwide, and it''s down among Mississippi youths. In 2007, 19.2 percent of Mississippi teens smoked. That compares to 31.5 percent back in 1999, when cessation efforts were just taking off. (The adult smoking rate has remained roughly the same compared to 10 years ago -- around 23 percent.) 

 

But a lack of attention to continued prevention could cause a backslide. 

 

"The danger in Mississippi is that the progress that''s been made is going to disappear unless state legislators restore funding to the program," Peter Fisher, vice president of state issues for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, told the AP last year. 

 

 

 

Smoke ''em if you got ''em 

 

Next Tuesday, cigarette distributors will gather in that nondescript warehouse in Tupelo, and roll away with millions of discount cigarettes. Yes, the state will make some money, certainly less than the $20 million estimated retail value. 

 

The buyers will make money too, selling the smokes to people who don''t take responsibility for their own actions, and can''t afford the medical treatments they''re going to need years from now. No need. The taxpayers, most of whom don''t smoke, will foot the bill for all that. We''ll just toss it on top of our $264 million annual Medicaid bill; no worries. 

 

And this will all happen in Mississippi -- the state that helped teach the nation that smoking was deadly. Once upon a time. 

 

Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.