LOS ANGELES — Every day, about 3,800 American kids try a cigarette for the first time. A thousand of them will grow up to have a daily smoking habit, and nearly 300 will wind up dead from a smoking-related disease.
Those statistics would be depressing under any circumstances. But they are all the more so considering that states and the federal government collect billions of dollars every year in cigarette taxes and funds from the 1998 tobacco industry settlements. In 2010, that added up to almost $24 billion, according to a study in Friday’s edition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
And how much of that $24 billion was used to fund tobacco prevention programs, smoking cessation services and other public health interventions? A mere $640 million, which was spread across the 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to the CDC report.
That’s a far cry from the investment needed to make tobacco-related illness a thing of the past, like polio. The CDC calculates that governments need to spend a minimum of $3.7 billion each year to make a real dent in the problem. But actual spending is less than one-fifth of that.
These days, states have been using their tobacco money primarily to fund general services. That’s understandable, given the gaping holes in so many state budgets. (The tobacco industry money was intended primarily to reimburse the states for the cost of caring for people with smoking-related diseases, but there was no requirement that money be spent in any particular way.)
But even in the best of times — 2002, according to the CDC report — total state and federal spending for anti-tobacco initiatives was $821 million. That was only half as much as the minimum the CDC said was needed at the time.
Between 1998 and 2010, the amount of money taken in through various tobacco taxes as well as the industry settlement payments was 30 times greater than the amount spent on tobacco control measures. In 2010 alone, it was 37 times greater.
Would more spending have made a difference? Yes, the CDC researchers argue. For evidence, they turn to California, which (unlike most states) actually comes close to spending the amount of money on tobacco prevention that the health agency says is needed. The proportion of adults in the Golden State who smoke has dropped from 23 percent in 1988 to 13 percent in 2009.
“The tobacco control program has been associated with substantial reductions in personal health care expenditures,” according to the CDC report.