Hood seeks funds to fight underage smoking, drinking

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood is requesting an additional $800,000 in state funds to continue a program to combat under-age smoking and drinking.

The program has been funded through the non-profit Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi. But because of a successful lawsuit by Gov. Haley Barbour, Treasurer Tate Reeves and others, the Partnership will not have money to fund programs like Hood's efforts to determine if stores and bars are selling liquor and cigarettes to minors.

“This program has worked,” Hood told members of the Legislative Budget Committee on Monday. “It has been money well spent.”

The committee also heard from Auditor Phil Bryant and Secretary of State Eric Clark as it began the process of developing a budget recommendation for the Legislature when it convenes in January.

The hearings will continue through much of the month.

The Partnership was created through court order to combat smoking. It has received $20 million per year from the more than $100 million annually the state receives as a result of former Attorney General Mike Moore's successful lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

Barbour and others persuaded the court to halt the annual payments to the Partnership, claiming the tobacco lawsuit settlement funds were state money that only the Legislature had the constitutional authority to appropriate.

Hood said that when his office began its efforts, minors used by his staff could buy liquor and cigarettes about 35 percent of the time. Now, through the enforcement effort, the minors used by the Attorney General's office are successful less than 5 percent of the time.

“That's the lowest rate in the nation,” Hood said.

Hood said the state would have the money to continue the program because it would be receiving the money that previously had gone to the Partnership.

Many members of the Democratic leadership of the House, which supported the Partnership, have talked about creating a state commission to continue many of the anti-smoking efforts of the Partnership.

Barbour has proposed using the $20 million for smoking prevention, enhanced cancer research, an enhanced school nurse program and additional drug prevention.

Critics of the Barbour proposal say it does not contain all of the smoking prevention programs that have made the Partnership a success.

Overall, Hood wants an additional $1.5 million for his $8.2 million budget. He said his requested increase also would help fill five vacancies and four new positions.