No smoking gun 

Tobacco fund ballot initiative faces no organized opposition

Sometimes a lucky candidate runs for office uncontested. And sometimes a lucky ballot measure sails through without a fight.

This November, Montana voters will decide the fate of Initiative 146. The initiative is supported by a legion of health care advocates. The measure enjoys the rare privilege of facing no organized public opposition. In fact, its strongest potential opponent—the tobacco industry—is legally prohibited from fighting it.

Also known as the Tobacco Disease Prevention Act, the new law would earmark 32 percent of tobacco settlement funds for statewide anti-smoking programs. That proportion of the $30 million annual payment would provide $9.3 million to smoking prevention and cessation programs.

In 1998, the state concluded the largest lawsuit of its kind in history against the tobacco industry and accepted a settlement brokered with other states that included a promise by the tobacco industry to pay a total of $832 million to Montana through 2025 in yearly installments.

Among other things, the agreement banned tobacco advertising aimed at children, and with respect to the fate of I-146, it also prohibited the tobacco industry from opposing any proposal to “limit youth access to and consumption of tobacco products.”

So when Erick Tombre, the statewide coordinator for the group backing I-146, hit the streets last summer to collect signatures for the qualifying petition, he didn’t have to counter the arguments—or massive financial might—of the tobacco industry. Instead, he only had to persuade citizens that they deserved a chance to set aside tobacco money for anti-smoking programs, and not other budget-balancing endeavors. It’s a popular idea and thus far, no organized resistance has surfaced.

“Most people say, ‘Absolutely, that’s what the settlement was supposed to do,’” says Tombre. “Big tobacco money can’t get involved. They would be the ones with the money to oppose this, but they can’t.”

By most estimates, I-146 is expected to pass. The last time an initiative about tobacco settlement funds was on the ballot, it attracted more support than any other issue. In 2000, voters approved the creation of a health care trust fund by a vote of 73 percent in favor to 27 percent opposed.

Currently, 40 percent of each annual payment from the tobacco settlement is dedicated to the health care trust fund. Growing by about $12 million per year, the fund’s interest is used to augment the budget of state health care programs.

Ironically, the passage of the trust fund law is related to the motivation for I-146.

During the administration of former Gov. Marc Racicot, prevention and cessation programs were funded at $3.5 million per year, an amount considered marginal by national standards, according to Tombre. But when Gov. Judy Martz took office in 2000, she inherited a budget deficit instead of a surplus, as well as an obligation to set aside money for the voter-approved trust fund.

As budget director Chuck Swysgood notes, the Martz administration reduced the state budget by more than $40 million to cover, among other things, the removal of $12 million from the general fund for the health care trust. So ironically, in an era of tight state finances, dedicating more tobacco settlement money to specific anti-smoking programs could take money from other health care programs.

“The more they take away from the general fund, the harder it is to find money for the other health care programs,” says Swysgood. But that’s as much opposition as I-146 is likely to see.

I-146 would also allocate 17 percent, or about $5.1 million, to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and 11 percent, or about $3.3 million, to the general fund. The 32 percent for prevention programs is based on a “bare-bones” recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, according to Tombre.

“[The settlement] was never intended to balance the budget [but] we’ll save a lot of money with these programs,” says Tombre. “We spend over $205 million a year in tobacco-related health care costs [in Montana]. If we can prevent a low birth weight baby, or a premature baby, from being in intensive care for thousands of dollars per day, that’s an immediate savings.”

The appeal of using tobacco money to pay for health care costs and anti-smoking programs is strong enough that some people wonder why the original settlement didn’t mandate them. But as former Attorney General Joe Mazurek explains, the lawsuit was based on consumer protection and fraud charges, not recouping health care damages. In addition, state law requires that any money recovered in a lawsuit goes into the general fund.

“Attorneys general are not policy makers,” says Mazurek. “They don’t decide how to spend money.”

As of Aug. 5, the group sponsoring I-146, Tobacco Settlement for Tobacco Prevention and Health, had raised $46,625 and spent $30,023, according to finance reports submitted to the Commissioner of Political Practices. The group also received $16,662 of in-kind donations.

The group is supported by a range of public health organizations, although the bulk of its financial support and leadership come from the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and the American Heart Association. Tombre is employed by M & R Strategic Services, a consulting firm for health care and environmental nonprofits.

Six other measures will appear on the November ballot, including a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature to increase the number of signatures required for a citizen-sponsored initiative to qualify for the ballot.

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