The latest annual report card on state spending to prevent teens from first lighting up and help smokers quit should put heat on elected officials in both Harrisburg and Trenton - because their budgeting priorities make it appear that the lives of nearly a half-million teenagers aren't worth saving.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among nearly two-dozen states that spend less than 10 cents on the dollar toward what federal public health officials view as necessary to steer Americans away from smoking habits that annually kill 440,000 smokers and others who breathe secondhand smoke.
The report from a coalition headed up by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids calculates that, given this lackluster level of funding for antitobacco programs, there are 468,000 teens across both states whose lives will be cut short due to smoking.
It's not as if state officials don't have the money. Between the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, states will pull in $25.7 billion during the current fiscal year. But most of that tobacco-related revenue is being diverted to other government purposes. By spending only $459.5 million, or less than two percent on antismoking programs, state officials are getting far less public health bang for the buck than might be possible.
The $14.2 million earmarked by Harrisburg this fiscal year for tobacco prevention places the state in the middle of the pack nationally. New Jersey, by contrast, fell to dead last - by virtue of allocating no money for these programs.
No matter how deserving or well-intentioned other programs being funded with tobacco revenue, states "have an obligation to use more of their billions in tobacco revenues to fight the tobacco problem," as Matthew L. Myers, head of the Tobacco-Free Kids group, notes. Indeed, preventing teens from taking up the nicotine habit - one that's particularly hard to kick - should be the highest priority, given Big Tobacco's insatiable need to recruit new smokers to replace those its products have killed off.
While it's true that both states' indoor smoking limits represent major strides in the campaign to reduce smoking, officials should be working toward closing loopholes that expose casino employees and patrons to dangerous secondhand smoke.