House mulls ‘first cousin’ to tobacco prevention program

Published 7:59 pm Friday, January 5, 2007

The Mississippi House is working to create a new program designed to keep young people away from cigarettes.

A bill that cleared the Public Health Committee on Thursday would establish a state agency called the Mississippi Tobacco Control Commission.

The group would get the $20 million a year that had been going to a private group called The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.

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The money comes from the state’s settlement of a massive lawsuit against tobacco companies, and it’s tied up with a separate, unresolved legal challenge filed by Gov. Haley Barbour.

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the new state commission would be “a first cousin on the mama’s side of the Partnership,” filling some of the same functions, including anti-tobacco advertising.

Sandra Shelson, director of the Partnership for several years, told lawmakers she supports the creation of a state anti-tobacco program, even if the work is not done by the Partnership.

“It’s bigger than any one organization,” Shelson said Thursday.

In filing a lawsuit in 2005 to try to block the Partnership payments, Barbour said public money should not go to a private group.

The Partnership was led by former Attorney General Mike Moore, a Democrat who made national headlines in the 1990s by making Mississippi the first state to sue tobacco companies over the costs of treating sick smokers.

Barbour, a Republican, lobbied for tobacco companies in Washington before becoming governor.

The bill to create the new commission has to go through the Appropriations Committee before it can be debated in the full House.

In what he calls a “Healthy Kids” initiative, Barbour has proposed roughly a four-way split of $5 million each to tobacco cessation programs, a school nurse program, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and to a cancer institute at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Dr. Ed Thompson, a former state health officer who has served as a top-level adviser to the Partnership, told lawmakers Thursday that for a tobacco-prevention program to be effective, it should follow guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thompson said that a program should be comprehensive and should bombard young people with anti-smoking messages at home, at school and in other gathering places such as churches.

He said an effective program is “not cheap.”

“But it’s cheaper than the alternative,” Thompson said, referring to the costs of treating sick smokers.

The bill is House Bill 349.