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Washington flush with tobacco money, but gets an ‘F’ for prevention

Washington state led the fight against tobacco companies in a historic lawsuit that forced the companies to pay billions for ongoing damages to public health. It’s illegal to smoke indoors or within 25 feet of an entrance. Smoking is more stigmatized than ever.

Washington state has clearly kicked the habit, right?

“We receive a red failing grade for the amount of money our Legislature invests in keeping the next generation of kids off tobacco products,” Mary McHale told KIRO Radio.

RELATED: King County bans pro players from using any tobacco products during games

McHale is with the American Cancer Society. It’s new report grades each state on efforts to prevent cancers of all kinds. Washington gets a big fat ‘F’ on preventable tobacco-related cancers. McHale points to alarming rates of teenagers picking up e-cigarettes — and how little we spend compared to cigarette companies in terms of marketing dollars.

“When you think about tobacco, a lot of folks think that we’re done with the fight against tobacco, that we can move on to other topics and that is simply not true,” McHale said. “Tobacco remains the number one preventable cause of death and disease in our state and our state invests $1.5 million each year to educate the next generation around the dangers of tobacco use. Compare that with the $90 million each year the tobacco industry spends marketing their deadly products in our state. Our state has a lot of work to do in terms of investing in programs that keep kids safe and away from tobacco.”

Washington’s addiction to tobacco money

Now, if you’re thinking, “What happened to that huge pot of cash we got from that famous tobacco lawsuit? What’s going on with the checks lawmaker still deposit every year?” You might be surprised to hear just how much money pours in annually — and where it actually goes.

“Our state receives over $600 million every year from a combination of the master settlement agreement, which is money the tobacco companies pay to the state each year to help make up for the health care costs incurred by people using their products,” McHale said. “And also tobacco tax revenue coming into the state. Washington receives over $600 million each year; not one penny of that is going toward prevention. It’s just going into the general fund. And I think that’s something a lot of people have lost sight of.”

Which brings up the question: Why? That’s a lot of money. Is our Legislature basically addicted to cigarette revenue?

“Absolutely,” McHale argues, saying that efforts to raise the age to purchase tobacco products to 21 has consistently hit “road blocks.”

“If you have fewer people purchasing tobacco products, that means less revenue coming into the state,” she said. “And while we shouldn’t be balancing our state budget on the backs of teenage smokers, the fact that has been a concern to our elected officials, I think, highlights the financial situation that Washington state has been in over the last few years in terms of trying to fund education.”

Pushing the Legislature

Mary and the American Cancer Society is pushing state lawmakers to look at two things in the next session. One: Raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco to 21. Two: Investing another $10 million in education and prevention.

The national Centers for Disease Control says Washington should be spending $64 million each year. Just a reminder, we’re currently spending $1.5 million. Mary says they’ll settle for $10 million.

“If our state would invest in our tobacco prevention control program at the Department of Health, that would pay for things like a mass media campaign to educate the pubic on the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarette use,” McHale said. “That could be used to provide money to school districts to help them handle the epidemic of e-cigarette usage they are seeing in the hallways. It would go to community groups that are doing the work in the communities that have the highest smoking rates.”

“When you look at smoking rates in Washington state, it’s around 14 percent,” she said. “But when you look at communities of color and the LGBTQ community, those communities smoke at rates almost double the state average. So when you think about the fact our state is not investing dollars in prevention and control, it’s really an equity issue at this point.”

We’ve been talking a lot about dollars and cents. But what does this actually mean in terms of human life? Attorney General Bob Ferguson testified last year about what it would mean if Washington changed the minimum age to buy tobacco products.

“Based on current smoking trends, 8,500 kids alive in Washington state today would be saved from a premature death if the Legislature enacts Tobacco 21,” Ferguson said at the time. “That is the equivalent of three school buses of children, per legislative district.”

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