Va. slashes funding for tobacco prevention

Facing budget shortfalls, Virginia and other states have cut funding for tobacco-prevention programs, according to a report released Wednesday by a group of public health organizations.

The cuts have jeopardized reductions in youth smoking rates seen in recent years, according to the report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and other health groups.

Following a national trend, Virginia lawmakers cut funding for tobacco-prevention programs from $14.5 million in 2008 to $8.4 million this fiscal year, according to the report.

“Virginia has had an effective tobacco-prevention program, but the state has taken a big step backward and slashed funding by more than 40 percent,” said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, in a statement released by the group.

After the 1998 multibillion-dollar national tobacco settlement, Virginia dedicated 10 percent of its payments from the legal settlement to youth tobacco-prevention programs. A state budget shortfall in 2010, however, led state lawmakers to cut that amount to 8.5 percent.

As a result, the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth, a state-created foundation that is funded entirely with tobacco settlement money, saw its budget reduced 25 percent.

That led to cuts in some of the programs the foundation has financed since its creation in 2000, including an advertising campaign and grants to schools and civic groups for healthy lifestyle programs for children.

In 2010, about 70,000 children in Virginia participated in school or other youth organization tobacco-prevention programs funded by the foundation. This year, the number dropped to about 61,500.

Public health groups in Virginia have lobbied lawmakers to restore the funding at least to 10 percent of the settlement payments, said Keenan Caldwell, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society in Virginia.

“It is proven in the long run that if we keep kids from starting smoking, we can keep them from becoming lifelong smokers,” he said. “It saves us many costs associated with smoking.”

Caldwell noted that youth smoking rates dropped in Virginia during the 10-year period since a statewide tobacco-prevention campaign started. For high school students, the rate fell from 28.6 percent in 2001 to 19.7 percent in 2009. For middle school students, it dropped from 10.6 percent to 3.6 percent during the same period.

Most states are putting only a small percentage of their tobacco settlement payments or tax revenue into prevention, according to the report.

States will collect about $25.6 billion from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes in 2011, but they plan to spend just 1.8 percent of it — $456.7 million — on tobacco-prevention programs, or about 2 cents of every dollar collected, the report says.

Virginia is expected to collect about $299 million in revenue from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes this year, but the state will spend just 2.8 percent of it on tobacco-prevention programs, according to the report. That ranks Virginia 30th in the nation in tobacco-prevention spending.

By: John Reid Blackwell

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