How States are Misspending Smoking Prevention Funds

By Dirk Hanson 06/15/11

Telephone support programs for smokers are running out of money.

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Smokers are tough to corral, when your objective is to talk to them about quitting.  But if you let them come to you when they’re ready, it can be a different story. In 1992, California offered the first telephone-based counseling for tobacco cessation. By 2009, tobacco Quitlines throughout North America were receiving almost half a million calls annually from tobacco users. Some U.S. Quitlines also offer free quitting medications or provide tobacco users with vouchers or discounts to receive quitting medications at reduced costs. Yet all of this is now endangered by funding hurdles.

According to the North American Quitline Consortium, which coordinates the counseling that Quitline (and Quitnet, its online counterpart) provide, primary funding for the operation comes from the states’ Master Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry, signed in 1998. However, funding for U.S. quitlines decreased by $8.6 million from 2009 to 2010, according to the Consortium. A recent report on how states are spending the money collected each year from the Master Settlement Agreement states in part: “In fiscal Year 2010, the states will collect $25.1 billion from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. They will spend just 2.3 percent of it—$567.5 million—on tobacco prevention and cessation programs.” If the money doesn’t go for smoking prevention as intended, where does it go? Like hogs at the trough, the states have gone on a spending frenzy with the money. Here’s a partial list  of projects that have been funded with tobacco money intended for smoking prevention: Dump trucks and golf carts in New York, broadband-cable networks in Virginia, metal detectors and surveillance cameras for schools in Alabama, museum expansion in Alaska, and sewer improvements in South Carolina.

Ironically, all of this comes at a time of record growth for Quitline services, says the Consortium. For example, in North Dakota, 2,616 smokers have quit after working with Quitline counselors, says the Grand Forks Herald. Of those who enroll and complete the counseling program, 36 percent stay quit after six months, and 33 percent after one year. The North Dakota Quitline employs four fulltime and two part-time counselors trained at Mayo Clinic. "They do a really thorough background and try to work on an individualized plan for you,”  said Michelle Walker, Cessation Program Director for the state’s Quitline and Quitnet. “What works for one person won't work for the next."

Unfortunately, now that summer has arrived, Walker said calls begin to fall off, compared to the volume of winter calls. “Our theory is that people don’t mind going outside in the summer to smoke,” she said.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]