Blunt proposes anti-smoking initiative

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Gov. Matt Blunt on Tuesday unveiled an $11.6 million plan to help more Missourians quit smoking.

The proposal calls for a new smoking cessation program in MoHealthNet, the government health care program for the poor previously known as Medicaid.

That program accounts for $8.6 million of the governor's proposal, which he disclosed during a morning press conference at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. Another $2 million would be directed toward youth anti-smoking efforts, with $1 million to expand a statewide telephone hotline for problem smokers.

A report in late 2006 by a coalition of public health organizations showed that Missouri was among five states that provided no money for programs to encourage children not to smoke. State officials disputed that assertion, and noted that Blunt had unsuccessfully sought money from lawmakers for smoking prevention.

Money for the effort would come from the more than $1 billion received by the state since 1998 as part of the national settlement with tobacco companies over harm from smoking.

By law, 25 percent of the money Missouri received from that settlement with tobacco companies must be placed in a Life Sciences Research Trust Fund, starting in 2007. In past years, much of the tobacco settlement proceeds were used to shore up a shaky state budget.

"Too many Missourians smoke," Blunt said, citing statistics that show 23 percent of Missourians smoke, a rate higher than the national average. "It is a very preventable disease and illness. ... We can do better."

Blunt said he expects the cessation program to benefit 15,000 people enrolled in MoHealthNet, or 10 percent of the estimated 150,000 smokers in the government insurance program.

Medicaid previously didn't cover counseling or smoking cessation drugs, meaning it was cheaper for smokers to continue buying cigarettes than spend as much as $100 a month on nicotine patches or other cessation devices.

"This launches the first comprehensive anti-smoking initiative the state of Missouri has ever had," Blunt said.

Asked by a reporter if raising cigarette taxes would be a more effective approach, Blunt demurred. Missouri voters have twice rejected a cigarette tax increase in recent years. The state has one of the lowest tax cigarette tax rates in the country.

"There are ways to get at this without a tax increase," the governor said.

With a likely eye toward the 2008 governor's race, he cast the anti-smoking proposal as part of a larger effort to overhaul state government, citing his work promoting lawsuit reforms and "fixing a broken budget."

Blunt traveled to a St. Louis cancer center and a Kansas City hospital later Tuesday to make similar announcements.

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