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Ohio Lawmakers Seek to Raid Anti-Smoking Funds

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Ohio Lawmakers Seek to Raid Anti-Smoking Funds


Ohio Lawmakers Seek to Raid Anti-Smoking Funds

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In Ohio, anti-smoking activists are accusing state officials, including Governor Ted Strickland, of orchestrating a massive money grab. They say the state is diverting millions of dollars from programs meant to educate people about the dangers of smoking.

Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio reports.

KAREN KASLER: Ohio was one of 46 states sharing $246 billion in the huge settlement with the big cigarette makers in 1999. The money was to be paid over 25 years. Ohio has taken in about $2 billion so far, and state leaders have diverted more than a quarter of that to plug budget holes and build schools.

Last year, Ohio officials traded their $8 billion in future payments for a one-time check of $5 billion, which, once again, went to fix crumbling school buildings. So, of the $10 billion Ohio won in the lawsuit, only a paltry $270 million remains. And now, state leaders want to divert most of that to finance an economic stimulus package.

Ohio Governor Ted Strickland says the tobacco funds belong to the state for elected officials to spend as they choose.

Governor TED STRICKLAND (Democrat, Ohio): I really don't understand how this foundation that had been allocated resources from the state would feel that the state has no right or authority to determine how those resources would be used in the future.

KASLER: Strickland is referring to the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. Its director, Mike Renner, says the settlement money was intended for states to set-up tobacco cessation programs and handle healthcare costs related to smoking. But Renner says, state politicians couldn't keep their hands off of it.

Mr. MICHAEL RENNER (Executive Director, Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation): They dipped into a resource that didn't even exist but for the fact of the lawsuit to fix the problems of tobacco use, and it's disappointing that we'd so soon have forgotten that.

KASLER: There's no funding in the state budget for the foundation and no future tobacco money coming in. So the foundation is taking the state to court, saying if the money is taken away, it will go out of business.

Ohio's diversion of tobacco funds isn't unique. Many other states have used the money for budget deficits and school repairs. In New York, tobacco money was spent on a golf course sprinkler system. In North Carolina, it went to a tobacco museum.

Matt Myers is the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which charts how states spend tobacco settlement money.

Mr. MATT MYERS (President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids): Ohio's theft -and there's no other way to call it, of the tobacco settlement money is the most recent and perhaps, the most egregious, but not the only one.

KASLER: Myers cites studies showing anti-tobacco programs lower smoking rates especially among teens, and he argues that taxpayers deserve better from their officials.

Mr. MYERS: It's a truly sad commentary that when American politicians get a pot of money for a specific purpose, they lack the discipline to live up to the promise they made to their own taxpayers.

KASLER: The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says the state could create its stimulus package and keep the foundation operating by raising state taxes on cigarettes by 75 cents a pack. But hiking taxes is something that Ohio's officials have roundly rejected.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler in Columbus.

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