Posted by: audreybenenati | January 11, 2010

Cheryl Healton commentary: Foundation’s money would serve Ohio best by fighting tobacco

Sunday, January 10, 2010 3:22 AM

By Cheryl Healton

During the more than 25 years that I smoked, the New Year always presented an opportunity to begin anew and try to be smoke-free. Like many smokers, I struggled before finally quitting for good — but the New Year always gave me the resolve to try again.

I am sure that many of Ohio’s 1.8 million smokers looked forward to Jan. 1, 2010 with that same determination to kick their deadly addiction once and for all. Unfortunately, a decision issued on New Year’s Eve by the Franklin County Court of Appeals made this prospect much more difficult.

On that afternoon, the court reversed a lower court’s order that had prevented the state of Ohio from dissolving the endowment of the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation. This was the latest development in an almost two-year legal battle that has been waged by the public health organization I head, Legacy, and two former Ohio smokers, to ensure that funds set aside by the Ohio legislature for tobacco-control programs are spent on their intended, life-saving purpose.

Ten years ago, the state of Ohio settled legal claims it had brought against the major tobacco companies to recover tobacco-related health-care costs. The state legislature wisely decided to set aside a portion of the billions from the settlement for programs and services aimed at reducing the smoking rate in Ohio, which then stood at 26.2 percent. To ensure that the funds were protected from future politicians tempted to spend them on other priorities, the legislature created a special organization, the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation, outside the state bureaucracy and placed the money to operate the foundation into a special endowment outside the state treasury.

From a public health perspective, the foundation has been a tremendous success story. Thousands of Ohioans — including David Weinmann and Robert Miller, the two men that joined Legacy in the lawsuit — received help quitting smoking or were educated never to start thanks to foundation programs and services.

During the foundation’s eight-year tenure, middle-school smoking rates in the BuckeyeState dropped by a whopping 64 percent and high-school smoking rates dropped by 41 percent. Among adults, between 2000 and 2008, the state’s smoking rates declined 59 percent more than smoking rates in states contiguous to Ohio. All told, roughly 114,000 premature tobacco-related deaths were prevented in Ohio, thanks in large part to the state’s investment in quality tobacco-control programs.

The foundation’s work also made fiscal sense. Smoking costs Ohio more than $4 billion in annual health-care costs and an additional $4.8 billion annually in smoking-related productivity loss. A 2007 report by Legacy found that Ohio’s Medicaid system could save nearly $550 million within five years if all Medicaid beneficiaries who smoke would quit. Ohio would reap the third-largest savings of all the states, making the case that despite this economic downturn in Ohio, investing funds in tobacco control is a smart long-term investment strategy, ultimately saving Ohioans’ lives and money.

Low-income Ohioans who smoke also have the least access to tobacco-prevention and smoking-cessation programs. Since smoking rates are generally higher for this demographic, they stand to benefit the most from these programs, saving them — and Ohio — money and adding years to their lives.

For our part, Legacy is taking the battle to safeguard these funds all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, to keep these funds in Ohio, for the benefit of all Ohioans. In this New Year, I am optimistic that the Supreme Court will recognize the sound legal reasoning of the trial court’s opinion and overturn the appellate court’s decision, allowing monies to flow back for life-saving tobacco-related education and services.

If the foundation is permitted to resume its highly successfully programs, it will provide thousands of state residents with the support they need to make their New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking succeed, ultimately saving thousands of lives.

Cheryl Healton is the president and chief executive officer of Legacy, the national public health foundation devoted to keeping young people from smoking and helping all smokers quit.


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