Healthcare

States should reform how they spend tobacco funds — not restrict access to products

This week, thousands of lawmakers in more than 30 states trekked to their respective capitals. Surely, these public servants are eager to work hard for their constituents by passing new laws and much-needed reforms.

Unfortunately, many of these lawmakers are also interested in restricting adults' choices and access to tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and vaping devices.

Six states have already banned the sales of tobacco products to persons less than 21 years of age. Even worse, 380 cities and counties have followed suit. For 2019 state legislative sessions, bills banning tobacco products to anyone less than 21 years of age have already been introduced in New Mexico and Washington State. No doubt, this is just the beginning of the tobacco banning bandwagon.

The idea of Tobacco 21 (T-21) is ideal, that raising the age to purchase tobacco products will help prevent youths from ever smoking a cigarette and likely to never become addicted. The only issue is that it is unlikely to actually prevent youth from using tobacco products and only punishes adults and state budgets.

First, 90 percent of tobacco users start smoking before age 18 and use "social sources" to acquire cigarettes. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration study found that 86 percent of youths aged "15 to 17 years old obtained cigarettes by asking someone else," and 89 percent relied on these sources for e-cigarettes. And just like the 58 percent of 12th graders and 42 percent of 10th graders that found someone to purchase or give them alcohol in 2018, legal adults aged 18 to 20 will have a social source to provide them with tobacco products.

However, ineffectiveness is not the only consequence of T-21 proposals. In an effort to combat tobacco addiction, state lawmakers are using Big Government to strip adults' freedoms while threatening the viability of tobacco harm reduction products. Moreover, these misguided and futile bans come at an economic loss, not that states are using tobacco funds properly anyways.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that states used less than 3 percent of the "record $27.5 billion from tobacco taxes and settlements," received in 2018 on "prevention and cessation programs." According to Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, states will use even less funding in 2019, 2.4 percent, "on programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit."

Rather than spending tobacco funds on cessation programs, several states use these funds on other programs. In 2007, West Virginia sold future tobacco settlement "payments to bondholders for $911 million, using more than $800 million of that bond to shore up the critically underfunded Teachers Retirement System."

As cigarette consumption has declined, so have tobacco settlement payments, as felt by New Jersey in 2018, which had to refinance its own tobacco bonds to "[strip] the debt of its junk rating." Even more alarming, states rely on tobacco sales for other budgetary items, as is the case in New York, with the Empire States' pension fund having investments in "Philip Morris, Altria, Reynolds America, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco."

T-21 will not ease any of this and in fact will cause states to lose more revenue. Illinois attempted to pass T-21 in 2018. The bill would have reduced yearly tobacco receipts by $41 million.

Even more troublesome, T-21 proposals include tobacco harm reduction products such as e-cigarettes and vaping devices. Despite growing alarmism, these products are 95 percent safer than combustible cigarettes and should not be included in cigarette legislation. By restricting access to these products, lawmakers are essentially denying a public health gain. Evidence suggests that Medicaid could save billions if recipients replaced combustible cigarettes with e-cigarettes.

In the United States, 18-years-olds can be tried as an adult, forced to go to war and are held responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. It is unacceptable that states would require so much responsibility from these adults on one hand, while restricting their access to tobacco products. Rather than limiting choices, lawmakers should use the funding from tobacco taxes and settlements on cessation and education programs.

Lindsey Stroud is a state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute.

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