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January 27, 2013

Anti-smoking program funds diverted

(Continued)

In the four years since 2009 alone, when funding for smoking cessation programs in Massachusetts stood at $13.6 million, more than $9 million has been slashed from the state’s anti-tobacco budget, leaving smokers with even fewer counseling options and support systems.

“It’s become a very different kind of program,” Keithly said,

The state’s current anti-tobacco efforts now focus primarily on providing technical assistance and training to other health-focused organizations to bring the stop smoking message to the public, he said. The state provides brochures and materials. Enforcing anti-tobacco legislation, such as the statewide smoke-free workplace law, has also become part of the agenda along with maintaining a statewide telephone counseling service for smokers.

Smoking rate down

Still, the cutbacks have anti-tobacco advocates worried.

“More and more states are spending virtually nothing for tobacco control. It’s a huge concern,” said Ellen Vargyas, general counsel for the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit formed after the Master Settlement Agreement to develop cessation and prevention programs that educate the public about the health effects of tobacco.

Although smoking rates have declined by almost 50 percent in the United States in the last 50 years, 19.3 percent of adults over the age of 18 — or 45.3 million people — still smoke, according to the CDC. Among low-income individuals, certain ethnic groups and male smokers under the age of 18, the percentage of smoking is even higher.

“Clearly, we’re not making the investment we should be making if we want to tackle the problem,” noted Shestakofsky, adding that cuts to the Bay State’s tobacco funding have cost the state a loss in programs that target veterans, the poor and other groups where smoking is particularly high.

Although not specifically designated for tobacco cessation, the Master Settlement Agreement was initially intended to fund tobacco prevention and mitigation programs, even though the agreement didn’t exactly specify how settlement money was to be used. Anti-tobacco advocates and state officials said they believe that was because state legislators wanted to control how the money would be spent.

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