North Carolina cut funding for tobacco prevention several years ago. Now a bipartisan group of House legislators wants to start a new awareness program.
House Bill 276, filed this week, would allocate $17 million each year for a new “tobacco use prevention fund” that would include school programs and other educational efforts about the health hazards of e-cigarettes and traditional tobacco products.
“We’re not just throwing money at a problem,” said Rep. Sam Watford, a Thomasville Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. “This legislation is very detailed and establishes a good program that was in existence for a long time, and we need to bring it back.”
In 2012, state lawmakers defunded an ad campaign known as Tobacco Reality Unfiltered, which had been credited with helping decrease the state’s high school cigarette-smoking rate from 31.6 percent in 1999 to 15.5 percent in 2011.
North Carolina now ranks 45th nationally for the amount of state funding spent on tobacco use prevention programs, according to Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Winston-Salem Republican and co-sponsor of the bill. “We certainly can do better, and we must do better,” he said during a news conference Wednesday.
The state receives $140 million every year from the Master Settlement Agreement, a 1998 lawsuit settlement between major tobacco companies and 46 states. Most of that money isn’t used for tobacco use prevention, and some of it has been given to tobacco farmers for modernization and marketing.
The high-school cigarette-smoking rate has continued to fall, to 9.3 percent in 2015.
But e-cigarettes have been growing in popularity among high school students, from 1.7 percent of high school students using them in 2011 to 16.8 percent in 2015.
Smoking among all age groups in North Carolina results in $3.81 billion in health care costs annually, according to the bill sponsors.
“The best way to deal with this is to prevent the use in the first place,” said Rep. Gale Adcock, a Cary Democrat and bill co-sponsor who’s also a nurse. “We either pay for it on the front end, or we pay for it on the back end. This is a great way to have a conservative use of our state funds.”
If the bill passes, funding would go to tobacco use prevention programs run by churches, schools, public health departments and nonprofit groups. Some of it would be used to study the effectiveness of the state’s programs.