Just 15 years ago, tobacco companies were told to give $246 billion over 25 years to state governments. During this lawsuit, Mississippi led the pack, with the state attorney general, Mike Moore, filing the first state lawsuit against the tobacco companies, and not without good reason.
While, at the time, the tobacco companies could hold individuals accountable for their choice to smoke and thus not having to pay out on individual lawsuits, Moore contested that, since the states had to cover medical bills for low birthweight babies, heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, and other tobacco-related health problems, that big tobacco should have to foot some of that bill. He won in the largest civil litigation settlement in history.
Now, about $100 billion of that $246 billion has been paid to states. Part of the settlement money was supposed to go to public service announcements like the infamous Truth campaign and smoking cessation programs, but lots of it came without stipulations, meaning that state governments could use the fund in whatever way they chose. This meant that every new governor could tap the fund dry for things other than anti-smoking public service announcements and/or education.
It could be worse. In Mississippi, as in many states across the nation, teen smoking is down 50 percent and adult smoking is down 25 percent. For that, we have public service announcements, prevention programs and cessation support groups to thank — many of which are funded by the tobacco settlement. However, these funds could be put to better use to make even more of a difference. Here are some more ways states can spend big tobacco’s money to make even more of a dent in their profits.
1. Develop Better Quitting Techniques
Nicotine patches, electronic cigarettes, nicotine gum, prescription medication — all of these methods have proven effective for some who are trying to quit smoking. However, many people don’t quit or delay quitting because it’s hard to do. If the money from big tobacco could fund research whose sole goal was to develop ways to make it easier to quit smoking, more people might take the plunge into a smoke-free life.I
2. Start Publicly-Funded Fitness Centers
Total health is not just about not smoking; it’s about getting a good workout and fueling your body with the right stuff. Many athletes I know wouldn’t touch a cigarette because it would be detrimental to their athletic performance. I also know just as many people who have addictive personalities and, once they realized how good going to the gym could make them feel — and how much better it made them feel than smoking did — decided to quit smoking once and for all.
In fact, a 2006 study in Austria found that people who attempt to quit smoking are more likely to do so if they follow an exercise routine. Publicly-funded fitness centers could aid in reducing smoking by involving kids in free fitness courses at a young enough age that they understand health and wellness before it’s too late, and it can motivate others to stop smoking or not start in the first place.
3. Bring Anti-Tobacco Education into Elementary and High Schools
I cannot stress this enough: stopping the smoking epidemic starts with prevention as the most important element. D.A.R.E. or Drug Abuse Resistance Education has been around since I was in grade school — almost 20 years ago — and, while the program is wildly popular, it has actually been found to be ineffective. We should avoid popular programs like D.A.R.E., but spend the money into more effective programs.
Effective programs should target teenagers, who often start to smoke because they feel insecure and stressed out, and they think cigarettes will make them look cool and reduce their stress level. Programs that take into account cultural and peer issues students face and use those issues to show students how to make smart choices. This would be a great way to spend big tobacco’s money.
4. Develop a Reward System for Remaining Smoke-Free
Kids and adults both love being rewarded, especially for things they are already doing. Actually, the reason smoking is so addictive is because it tricks the body’s reward system into activating itself. Why don’t we spend some money working on a real reward system that will reward people for not smoking rather than the fake rewards we get from smoking? It would be a complicated thing to do, but if states could develop a reward system for non-smokers with the money big tobacco pays them, it could be cheaper than healthcare costs for those who do smoke.
Why not give non-smokers a refund check at the end of the year, or a little something extra like a gift card or free month at the gym? Rewards help people stay on track, and remind them to do what’s right for themselves.
Photo Credit: Fried Dough