A coalition of health organizations are warning that a proposed state constitutional amendment would undermine Florida’s smoking prevention efforts resulting in higher smoking rates and, eventually, higher health care costs as the result of an increase in tobacco-related illnesses.
When Florida entered into a multi-billion dollar settlement with tobacco companies more than 20 years ago, a key component of the agreement was that a third of prevention dollars from the settlement be used to directly counter the tobacco industry’s marketing of its products in Florida.
“The industry is profit-driven,” said Dr. Terry Pechacek, with the Georgia State University Division of Health Management and Policy, and formerly with the Centers for Disease Office on Smoking and Health. “It will no longer have a market if it doesn’t have replacement smokers for the smokers who are dying. That’s the hard, cold facts of their [marketing] and we have to fight it until that marketing is gone.”
According to the Protect Tobacco Free Florida coalition, tobacco companies spend over $550 million promoting their products in the state. But the Tobacco Free Florida anti-smoking campaign, funded by the settlement, has countered tobacco’s marketing efforts, resulting in Florida having the lowest youth smoking rate in the country.
“No taxpayer dollars have ever been used for the Tobacco Free Florida campaign,” said Ron Sachs, who was the communications director for the late-Gov. Lawton Chiles who led efforts to sue the tobacco industry. “Every dollar is funded by the bad guys to message against the bad guys.”
Now, Proposal 94, a proposed amendment being considered by the state’s Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), is threatening to divert tobacco settlement money from the anti-smoking campaign to cancer research. The proposal was introduced by state Rep. Jeannette Nunez, R-Miami, who also serves on the CRC.
“While we support additional dollars for cancer research, it should not be at the expense of preventing cancer in the first place,” said Heather Youmans, coalition spokeswoman.
Florida spends $3.32 per resident from the tobacco settlement on anti-smoking efforts focusing on young people. The coalition says states like Texas and Michigan, which spend 16 cents per person, have youth smoking rates that are more than double that of Florida’s.
Even though tobacco companies still outspend the state’s anti-smoking campaign by a ratio of 24 to 1, the state’s efforts have made a significant difference. Before the settlement and the state’s anti-tobacco campaign, the smoking rate for high school students was 27.5 percent, while the rate for middle school students was 18.5 percent.
“But check now 20 years later and the number drops to 4.2 percent, the lowest high school smoking rate in the nation,” said former state Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who helped lead Florida’s legal battle against the tobacco industry. “And junior high drops down to 1.3 percent.”
The coalition consists of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The groups say reductions in Florida’s smoking rates from 2006 to 2016 has resulted in an $18 billion reduction in smoking-related health care costs. If Proposal 94 is approved, the groups say smoking rates in Florida will increase, and so will health care costs with state estimates ranging from $1.9 billion to $21.4 billion.
The CRC is made up of 37 members appointed by the Governor, Attorney General, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Senate President and House Speaker. It meets once every 20 years to consider amendments to the Florida Constitution and decides which of those amendments to put before voters on the November ballot. If a proposal is placed on the ballot, it must receive the support of 60 percent of the voters in order to pass.
A survey of 800 Florida voters conducted in January shows 72 percent of them support the continuation of the use of tobacco settlement funds to support the state’s smoking prevention programs.