August 30, 1999
Children are our most precious resource. As they learn to navigate their world, we get to experience once again all of the joy of discovery. All of our hopes and dreams for the future are embodied in our young people. But we are facing a serious public health problem with those same children.
From 1990 to 1998, smoking among high school seniors rose 38 percent and nearly doubled among sixth graders. The damages to our kids are all too real.
Kids who smoke are more likely to do poorly at school and use marijuana, heroin, or cocaine. Half of all smokers will die because of tobacco-related health problems. More Americans die from smoking than from murders, fires, AIDS, car crashes, suicides, and alcohol and drug overdoses combined.
That's why this year is a key turning point. Our own Attorney General Christine Gregoire led the national fight against the deceptive and predatory practices of tobacco companies, which have long targeted kids as potential customers and lied about the safety of cigarettes.
As part of the settlement that Gregoire negotiated, Washington state will receive $4 billion over the next 25 years--including more than $300 million during the next two years. That much honey in the pot attracts a lot of flies. There are countless ideas, plans, and plain old schemes that floated around the Legislature on how to divert that money from prevention and health care. Gov. Gary Locke proposed using about half of the settlement money to boost health care programs for children and poor families, and the other half for anti-smoking efforts.
Here's why we shouldn't divert any of the funds away from kids and healthcare:
The tobacco companies aren't stupid. Their advertising works, and they target children because they know 90 percent of smokers get hooked as kids, before they can legally buy cigarettes. It's no accident that the most heavily-advertised brands--Marlboro and Camel--are the ones kids smoke.
Marlboro is smoked by 60 percent of children, but just 25 percent of adults. The introduction of cartoon characters such as Joe Camel was a huge factor in getting younger kids to smoke. The good news is that cartoon characters wouldn't be allowed in the national settlement. The bad news is that plain old advertising still works on kids. That means we need a solid anti-smoking campaign, with real funding. The budget we passed will put $100 million into anti-smoking efforts. Such a large-scale campaign is essential, because once a kid lights up that first cigarette, the battle is practically over, at least until they are in their 20s.
These efforts work. In other states like California, Florida, and Massachusetts, they have achieved major reductions in smoking, especially among pregnant women. But it's not enough just to have a campaign--it must be strong and credible. The tobacco industry realizes this danger. Nationwide, its armies of lobbyists have fought hard to prevent anti-smoking campaigns from getting more than token funding.
Because tobacco is the No. 1 threat to public health, it makes sense to bolster our health care system with the tobacco settlement money. More than half of the settlement money would go toward health insurance programs for children and families.
Additionally, it makes legal sense to spend money on health and anti-smoking efforts. Gregoire has raised questions about the legality of diverting any of the settlement money away from health or anti-smoking programs. The federal government has also threatened to take away settlement money for federal Medicaid costs related to smoking--unless states commit the settlement to reducing childhood smoking and promoting public health.