Fifteen years ago, Georgia and other states settled lawsuits against the nation’s major tobacco companies to recover tobacco-related health costs. Total payments for the...

Fifteen years ago, Georgia and other states settled lawsuits against the nation’s major tobacco companies to recover tobacco-related health costs. Total payments for the states were huge –– estimated at $246 billion over the first 25 years.

Cigarette BurningThis fiscal year, Georgia will receive $347 million in tobacco settlement funds and the state’s tobacco taxes, according to a recent report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But the state will spend less than 1 percent of that amount on programs to prevent smoking, the report said.

Georgia ranks 43rd in the country in the amount it spends on tobacco prevention –– $2.2 million –– as compared to the funding level recommended by the CDC, according to the report.

Still, Georgia spending on tobacco prevention is not dramatically low relative to other states.

The states will collect $25 billion in revenue from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes in fiscal 2014, but will spend only 1.9 percent of it –– $481.2 million –– on tobacco prevention programs, the report said.

Georgia’s anti-tobacco funding exceeds that of Southeastern neighbors Alabama and North Carolina but is surpassed by South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana and Mississippi.

And Florida, which will spend $65 million on prevention this fiscal year, has reported that its high school smoking rate fell to just 8.6 percent in 2013, one of the lowest rates ever reported by any state.

Tobacco use –– the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States –– has a devastating impact in Georgia.

It causes 10,000 deaths in Georgia annually, and its direct health care costs amount to $2.25 billion a year. Roughly 1 in 5 Georgia adults are smokers.

“We don’t do as much as we should to reduce smoking in Georgia,’’ June Deen, state director of the American Lung Association in Georgia, told GHN. “A lot of deaths could be prevented.’’

Annual tobacco marketing, meanwhile, amounts to $316.9 million in Georgia, the report said.

The state’s public health spending on smoking is primarily focused on a telephone “quit line” and working with schools and universities to help them become tobacco-free.

The toll-free quit line 1-877-270-STOP (877-270-7867) promotes tobacco cessation with counseling, referrals to community services, and replacement therapy.

Jean O’Connor, director of health promotion and disease prevention at the Department of Public Health, said Friday that 31 percent of callers to the quit line are tobacco-free seven months later. Many other callers reduce their tobacco use, she added.

“Georgians want to quit,’’ O’Connor said.

Another successful state initiative is promoting tobacco-free school districts. Nearly 100 districts have adopted a tobacco-free policy –– more than half of the schools in the state. And Public Health is working with hospitals and universities to implement similar policies.

The commissioner of the Department of Public Health, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, has made tobacco a priority, O’Connor said.

Asked about the state’s funding level on prevention, O’Connor said, “Every year, the Legislature obviously sets the budget. We work with the funding we’re given to run our program.’’

Deen, of the Lung Association, said the state “has done some good things, especially promoting tobacco-free schools.’’

She said more tobacco prevention funding could allow the state to promote the quit line more and expand its services; beef up smoking cessation services; and push programs that target kids.

Georgia received $199 million in tobacco settlement money in fiscal 2014, a much higher level than normal, said Tim Sweeney, health policy director at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

That settlement money was spent on Medicaid and on other health programs, including cancer screening and treatment, Sweeney told GHN on Friday. The spending distribution is similar to other states, he added.

Revenues derived from the state’s tobacco tax all go into the general revenue fund, Sweeney said.

“It would be beneficial for Georgia to invest more money in smoking prevention programs,’’ Sweeney added.

Meanwhile, grass-roots efforts to turn Georgia colleges smoke-free have picked up momentum.

GHN reported in September that a growing list of Georgia colleges and universities have implemented anti-tobacco policies on campus.

And according to the AJC, the state Board of Regents is considering a total tobacco ban for all 31 institutions in the university system. The ban is being pushed by Regent Thomas Hopkins, an orthopedic surgeon from Griffin who wants it to apply to students, staff and visitors.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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