WASHINGTON – About a third of the payments from tobacco companies to the states goes to health care and tobacco control, government auditors said Tuesday.
The payments, part of a 1998 settlement by four of the nation's largest tobacco companies, were supposed to reimburse 46 states for past health care costs stemming from tobacco use. But states were free to spend the money however they wanted to — and they have.
Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., requested the report on how the tobacco funds were spent. The report was discussed during a hearing Tuesday on legislation that would let the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco. Health groups testifying at the hearing were overwhelmingly supportive of the legislation.
Under the bill, the FDA couldn't ban nicotine outright, but it would give the agency power to reduce nicotine levels, as well as require larger and more informative health warnings.
"Again and again, the tobacco companies have proven to us they will manipulate the system to encourage the uptake of smoking and keep current smokers from quitting," said Dr. Elmer Huerta, president-elect of the American Cancer Society.
But Enzi said he opposed the legislation because he believes it would undermine the FDA's mission of approving cures.
"The proposed bill would force this premier agency to provide its FDA seal of approval on a deadly product that has no health benefit, Enzi said.
Enzi said lowering tobacco use could be accomplished if states spent their tobacco settlement proceeds as advertised in the 1998 agreement between the nation's largest tobacco companies and the states.
"While states are spending their funds on a variety of projects, they are not spending key funds on the care of smokers and former smokers, or preventing tobacco use in the first place," Enzi said.
The Government Accountability Office found that states got $52.6 billion in tobacco settlement payments between 2000 and 2005. Health care led the way when it came to how the money was spent — 30 percent. Budget shortfalls accounted for about 22.9 percent of the money.
Another 6 percent of the money went to infrastructure such as roads, while education got about 5.5 percent. An array of other uses also got funds.
Programs designed to lower tobacco use got only 3.5 percent of the funding. Only about two-thirds of the participating states allocate any of their settlement money to lowering tobacco use. Pennsylvania and Ohio spent more on tobacco control than any other states — about $44 million and $37 million respectively in 2005.
Democrats on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions focused their attention on the dramatic health effects of tobacco use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 440,000 people die each year from smoking-related illness, and $76 billion in health expenses can be attributed to smoking.
"If Congress fails to act and smoking continues at its current rate, more than 6 million of today's children will ultimately die from tobacco-induced disease," said committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Health groups said it's time to rein in the addiction and harm caused by tobacco products. They want to prohibit marketing terms such as "light," "mild" and "low-tar," which officials say can mislead consumers into believing that certain cigarettes are safer than others.
Dr. Jack Henningfield of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said "light" and "low-tar" cigarettes are no less harmful than other cigarettes, yet many people buy them thinking they are safer.
"Since the light and low-tar scam began with a vengeance in the late 1960s, America has lost tens of millions of its citizens prematurely as they smoked light cigarettes to their graves," Henningfield said.
The Senate passed legislation in 2004 to give the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products, but the legislation died in the House. Now, with Democrats in charge of both chambers, the bill's prospects have improved considerably.
For decades, the FDA said it lacked authority to regulate tobacco so long as cigarette makers did not claim that smoking provided health benefits. In 1996, it reversed course and cited new evidence that the industry intended its products to feed the nicotine habits of the roughly 45 million Americans who smoke.
Tobacco companies sued, and the case eventually landed in the Supreme Court. In 2000, the court ruled 5-4 that Congress did not authorize the FDA to regulate tobacco.
Neither the FDA nor tobacco companies were invited to testify at Tuesday's hearing.