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The tobacco industry has a playbook, script and strategy that continues to effectively work in West Virginia. Twenty-five years ago, it experienced a stinging blow that was our first and only opportunity to strike back. Today, we continue to squander that opportunity. 

In 1998, the tobacco industry and 46 states, including West Virginia, reached what is known as the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.  In return for exemption from legal liability for the deadly consequences of using their products, the tobacco companies agreed to make annual payments to the states to fund anti-smoking campaigns and public health programs. 

But there was no requirement for the states to use these funds as intended was not written into the agreement. That was a mistake. 

In 2005, the West Virginia Tobacco Settlement Medical Trust Fund was created, seemingly with good intentions. But one year later, in 2006, the Rainy Day Part B fund was created, using, in part, the Tobacco Settlement Medical Trust Fund. 

In just a few years, millions meant for tobacco prevention and treatment were moved like a shell game. 

In 2007, West Virginia allocated more funding for tobacco control in the state budget than ever before— $7.1 million. This was far less than the $27.8 million recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but it’s the most the state has budgeted since. The amount hovered around $5 million until 2017, when the state zeroed out the funding altogether. It now stands at $455,000 per year

West Virginia is still the state with the most adult smokers and in 2017, we had one of the highest adolescent smoking rates in the country. More than 1 in 3

West Virginia high school students reported current use of e-cigarettes, which was a 150% increase from 2017 to 2019 alone. 

West Virginians never stopped smoking; we just stopped talking about it. As an opioid epidemic unfolded, and a pandemic raged on, we’ve diverted our eyes from tobacco — still the leading cause of illness and death in the world. 

There’s a heavy financial toll for all of this. It’s estimated that smoking costs our state $1.17 billion in direct health care costs annually, with $298.1 million in Medicaid costs. 

As we continue to look the other way, the tobacco industry will continue its unrelenting, ever-adapting strategies to hook our kids. Watch the vaping stores mushroom up across every rural town in our state. Listen to teachers and parents talk about vaping in the school bathrooms, not just in high schools but middle schools, too. 

It’s hard to believe that 25 years ago, we were handed an opportunity to fight back. And yet, our policymakers continue to divert needed funding to anything but its intended purpose. 

The good news is that our state still collects tobacco settlement payments and funding from a tobacco tax. It receives over $232.4 million annually from tobacco settlement payments and taxes combined. 

West Virginia continues to suffer the greatest consequences at the hands of the tobacco industry yet spends only 5.8% of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommended funding annually. It’s time to allocate funding where it was intended to go. The Legislature should increase the tobacco control budget to $27.4 million annually.

Funding should target youth prevention and cessation programming specific to marginalized populations, such as the Black and LGBTQIA+ communities. We should beef up the services provided by the WV Quitline and market it in all communities across the state. 

And importantly, the state’s tobacco control budget should be widely available and transparent, with annual evaluation data presented to the legislature before each session. 

As the tobacco industry adapts to younger consumers, so should we. And that means spending tobacco settlement funding as it was intended in the first place.

** West Virginia Watch is a nonprofit media source. Articles are shared under creative commons license. Please visit https://westvirginiawatch.com/ for more independent Mountain State news coverage.

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