Next: People who’ll light up to get paid to stop?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

America needs you to smoke, but may pay you to quit.

Mississippi needs you to smoke, but towns are putting more and more limits on where lighting up is allowed.

In all history, there may be no single topic on which governments have been less single-minded than tobacco, which, by the way, remains a legal crop for which farmers will receive $18 million in subsidies this year.

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Consider this calculation by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., or someone on his staff:

The renewal and expansion earlier this month of a federal-state program that pays for health care for children in families with modest incomes adds $4 billion to the program’s cost, which is to be offset by a 62-cent increase (to $1.01) in the federal tax on a pack of smokes.

Problem is, that’s not a break-even proposition unless 21 million more Americans decide to start smoking.

But fear not. Coburn, who is a medical doctor, also points out that if there is a sudden surge in smoking, the federal stimulus legislation signed last week includes $75 million for cessation programs. Some of those programs may include experiments testing whether paying people to quit is effective. And that, of course, begs the question of whether there will be people who start smoking just to become eligible for stop-smoking checks.

Mississippi’s approach to the topic is no less ridiculous, starting way back in 1997 after former Attorney General Mike Moore hired the now-imprisoned Richard “Dickie” Scruggs to wrest from Big Tobacco what became the national model cash settlement. It was to offset the harm to the public purse inflicted by the industry. The state is still getting annual payments, projected to eventually total about $4 billion.

In 1999, the Legislature solemnly established a trust account, planning to allow the tobacco checks to amass into a hefty endowment that would generate all or almost all the annual matching money needed for health services to the poor forever and ever, amen.

“Forever” turned out to be 36 months.

During the first tight year, the trust was raided and for several years since, too. Each year the Legislature has promised to restore the money to the trust. Hasn’t happened, isn’t likely — especially this year.

Instead of building an endowment, the millions have been used as needed to keep Medicaid and related programs going, as well as other general fund purposes. The state got a Medicaid bailout after Katrina in 2005 and will again this year from the aforementioned stimulus bill, but the Legislature persists in using every penny possible to fund state allocations that have increased faster in the past 15 years than in the previous 150.

Now as a side deal to the initial settlement, Moore obtained an initial carve-out and a $20 million annual slice to spend on state smoking-cessation programs, with special efforts targeted toward young people.

Destinations for the cessation money included items such as laptop computers for police departments and TV sponsorships of high school football and basketball championships. It’s not 100 percent clear how that spending helped young people avoid tobacco, but it’s all moot now anyway. The state Supreme Court, upon request of Gov. Haley Barbour, deemed the carve-outs improper. These days, the Legislature is making its own smoking-cessation allocations of about $10 million per year.

And, of course, speaking of the Legislature, members are not likely to adjourn this year without increasing the state’s inexcusably low 18 cents per pack.

Gov. Barbour, who vetoed a previous increase, favored a tiered hike with cheaper brands taxed more than name brands, because Big Tobacco is still paying into that settlement fund. Barbour also wants all new revenue earmarked for Medicaid.

Among myriad proposals, the state Senate has pondered a 31-cent increase, non-tiered, to 49 cents which, they say is the regional average.

Their action lowered the flat $1 per pack tax approved by the House early in the session, but kept education as the destination for the money.

Senators said they dared not approve a tax higher than Alabama, Louisiana or Tennessee, else smokers would flee to those states to stock up more cheaply. It wasn’t clear whether Mississippi, which has had some of the cheapest cigarettes in the nation, has been a mecca for tobacco sales to our neighbors.

Meanwhile, at least 29 towns and cities in Mississippi now impose some form of smoking restrictions, with Jackson the largest and latest. Most take the form of prohibiting indoor tobacco use in workplaces (except casinos), restaurants and bars. Starkville is the only town where some outdoor areas are smoke-free.

It’s all so convoluted. Kind of makes a person want to whip out a stogie and sit on the porch to puff and ponder: People aren’t conflicted. Smoking is bad. Governments agree, but their addiction is cash.