Even though Connecticut has received hundreds of millions of dollars from tobacco related lawsuits, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is still worried about smoking as a health risk.
“One statistic says it all: The average age that people begin to smoke in Connecticut is 11 years old,” Blumenthal said in a written statement.
Blumenthal said Tuesday he is disappointed that Governor John Rowland wants to use money obtained in lawsuits against the tobacco industry to balance the state’s budget. Blumenthal wants to use a larger percentage of the money for anti-smoking campaigns.
A recent report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids ranks Connecticut 45th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia in terms of using funds from the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement to educate children about the dangers of tobacco use.
“As citizens of a state with a proud record of leadership in public health, we ought to be outraged and embarrassed by this report,” Blumenthal said in a press release.
The 2002-2003 budget approved by the Legislature provides only $575,000 per year for prevention programs, a reduction from the one million dollars that was allocated toward anti-smoking measures last year. As of January 2003, the state will have received about $534 million in tobacco settlement funds.
Dean Pagani, spokesman for Rowland, said the state has worked to prevent tobacco use through funding from other sources including the Department of Social Services, the Department of Children and Families, and the Department of Mental Health Addiction Services.
“If you count that money, which is in the millions, Connecticut would come out in the middle of the pack as it relates to the other 50 states when it comes to money spent on this issue,” Pagani said.
Pagani said the Governor is concerned with the state’s budget deficit, which is currently close to $200 million. The state Tobacco Trust Fund Account contains $57 million, $40 million of which Pagani said could be used to alleviate the deficit.
“Instead of letting the money just sit there, let’s use this money on an emergency basis,” Pagani said.
The recent revenue shortfall also has legislators considering doubling the state’s cigarette tax from 50 cents to one dollar a pack. Proposed by state Sen. Martin Looney, the increase would make Connecticut’s tax on cigarettes comparable to that of neighboring states.
“There are a number of reasons behind it,” Looney said, citing additional revenue and public health as two main concerns.
He said the tax hike would raise $110 million for the state in the first year, though this figure would drop in the future as high prices might deter people from smoking.
State Sen. Toni Harp said she recommends that the state take $25 million of the money earned by the tax to put toward tobacco prevention.
“I agree that we’ve had some real difficulty in our state to use the money for prevention,” she said.
She added that the Center for Disease Control recommends that each state spend approximately $25 million per year to combat tobacco effectively.
“We didn’t start earlier when we had surpluses [in past years],” Harp said.
Looney’s initiative will go before the General Assembly on Feb. 6, the day Rowland presents his budget.
“He hasn’t gotten to the point where he can decide if taxes need to be raised,” Pagani said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.