LENA MITCHELL: Mississippi reneging on prevention promise of tobacco settlement

By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau

The fight to reduce people’s exposure to secondhand smoke, and ideally to limit use of all tobacco products, is progressing steadily throughout Mississippi. So far this year Anguilla, Belzoni, Booneville and Shuqualak have passed comprehensive smoking bans, bringing to 55 the total number of Mississippi cities with broad ordinances, according to the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University. Another dozen cities have ordinances with partial smoking bans.
The Mississippi State Department of Health Office of Tobacco Control continues the fight to break tobacco’s grip on Mississippi, partially filling the void left by the state’s defunding of Partnership for A Healthy Mississippi, which continues work as a Mississippi nonprofit.
MSDH funds Mississippi Tobacco Free Coalitions in counties throughout the state to work through community volunteers who help bring the anti-tobacco message to schools and push for ordinances banning smoking in public places.
Unfortunately the MSDH Office of Tobacco Control has far less reach with a budget of about $10 million a year for tobacco prevention programs compared to the $20 million the Partnership for A Healthy Mississippi received annually from the 1998 tobacco settlement.
As Mississippi’s attorney general in 1994, Michael Moore brought the first lawsuit against big tobacco companies, seeking restitution for the costs the state Medicaid program was bearing due to tobacco-related illnesses.
Many laughed at the notion that “big tobacco” could be brought down by a lowly public servant, and certainly not one from Mississippi.
Nevertheless, Moore found private lawyers to take on the fight. Not only were they successful, they showed other states a way to recoup their own similar losses. In a relatively short four years the tobacco companies cried “uncle” and agreed to settlements with the states to limit their losses.
Much of that historical story may have been forgotten or overshadowed by the convictions for other crimes of the private lawyers who represented Mississippi in the tobacco case.
Heaped on those convictions was the contention by Republican politicians that Democrat Moore’s lawyer friends had been paid much too high attorney fees in the case. There’s a saying that “nothing from nothing leaves nothing.” If those attorneys had lost, not only would Mississippi not have received a settlement that established a health care trust fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but the attorneys would have born all the expenses of taking the case.
Republican Governor Haley Barbour pressed a successful lawsuit in 2006 that ended automatic state funding for the Partnership for A Healthy Mississippi – an agency that continued under the leadership of former attorney general Moore – as part of the tobacco lawsuit settlement.
The following year, FY2007, Mississippi’s budget for tobacco prevention programs was zero. In FY2008, the state allocated $8 million for the MDSH Office of Tobacco Control; in FY2009, $10.3 million; FY2010, $10.6 million; FY2011, $9.9 million and FY2012, $9.9 million. The state also receives an additional $2 million in federal funds from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration Tobacco Control Program.
Mississippi receives about $265 million a year from tobacco-generated revenue from settlement payments and tobacco taxes, according to a December 2011 report of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. While the Centers for Disease Control recommends Mississippi spend about $39 million for effective tobacco prevention programs, the state’s $9.9 million is about 25 percent of that recommendation.
From 2000-2006, under the Partnership, the state’s spending of $20 million per year for tobacco prevention programs was more than 106 percent of the CDC’s recommendations.
By comparison, tobacco companies spend about $162 million per year advertising tobacco products in the state, a 16-to-1 ratio.
Who remembers that the major client for the lobbying firm from whence Barbour came – and to which he returned – was big tobacco? Was it their interests or the health interests of Mississippians and Mississippi Medicaid he had in mind when he won that lawsuit?
Lena Mitchell writes a Sunday column each month for the Daily Journal. Contact her at lena.mitchell@journalinc.com.

Click video to hear audio