Move to create state anti-smoking agency gains momentum

Published 7:47 pm Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sheetal Patel is a senior at Clarksdale High School and as a member of an anti-tobacco group, she says she’s not afraid to steer classmates away from smoking.

“They listen to us,” said Patel, who turns 18 on Wednesday.

The program she’s been part of — a youth group called Frontline — could fizzle away in a legal and political dispute over what to do with part of the money from Mississippi’s 1997 settlement of a massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry.

Frontline is part of The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, a private, nonprofit group that runs tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

For 5 1/2 years by court order, the Partnership received $20 million a year from tobacco companies’ payments to the state.

Gov. Haley Barbour, a former lobbyist for tobacco companies, filed a lawsuit last year to block the payments, saying that only legislators, not a judge, should decide how public money is spent.

The money is in legal limbo in the unresolved lawsuit, and for now, the Partnership is operating as a skeleton of its former self.

A bill advancing at the Capitol would create a group similar to the Partnership and make it a state agency called the Mississippi Tobacco Control Commission. The commission would get the $20 million a year that had been going to the Partnership.

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

The bill awaits House debate. It cleared the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, several days after being approved in the Public Health Committee.

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.

Mississippi is collecting about $4 billion over 25 years in its tobacco lawsuit settlement, with most of the money going to the Health Care Trust Fund, which was established by the Legislature and pays for a variety of programs.

The American Lung Association now gives Mississippi four grades of “F” on a report card: for spending on tobacco prevention and control programs; for smoke-free air in businesses, restaurants and other gathering places; and for the cigarette tax. The group gives Mississippi a “D” for preventing youth access to tobacco.

“If I received these kind of grades, I would be in trouble with my parents and teachers. But most importantly, I would be disappointed in myself,” said Rodgrick Hickman, 18, a senior at Noxubee County High School and member of the state board of Frontline.

Lawmakers this session also are expected to consider increasing Mississippi’s 18-cents-a-pack cigarette tax. Barbour vetoed two similar bills last year, saying he’s against raising any taxes.

Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, sides with Barbour on many issues but said he parts ways on the tobacco tax increase. Burton, a smoker, believes increasing the price of cigarettes would discourage young people from starting the habit.

“If somebody 30 years ago had stood here where I’m standing, maybe I wouldn’t be a tobacco user,” Burton said.

The bill is House Bill 349.