ST. ANN, Mo. -- Missouri lawmakers should use new settlement money the state receives from about 40 small tobacco companies for efforts to reduce smoking among young people, Attorney General Jay Nixon said Tuesday.
Nixon said the state's smoking rate is the nation's third-highest, with more tobacco-using high school students -- 30.3 percent -- than adults smoking statewide, or 26.6 percent.
"The number of Missouri teens who now smoke who will end up dying because of smoking-related causes is about equal to the entire population of Springfield, Mo.," Nixon said. "That's almost 150,000 teenagers smoking today that will die of smoking-related illnesses. It's stunning."
Nixon delivered his message during a speech to a health class of sixth-graders at Holman Middle School in suburban St. Louis.
He said Missouri has received $822 million to date in settlement money from a 1998 agreement between tobacco manufacturers and 46 states. But, he said, Missouri has failed to use it to keep young people from smoking.
State officials throughout the nation said at the time of the settlement that their goal was to use the money to recover the cost of treating sick smokers, but the General Accounting Office found that just 24 percent of last year's settlement earnings was spent on health-related initiatives nationwide.
If the Nixon-backed initiative is approved, the legislature would create a commission to select programs designed to reduce youth smoking. The panel would include heads of the state Department of Mental Health, and the Department of Health and Senior Services, state lawmakers, Nixon and health officials.
Soraya Nouri, a pediatric cardiologist, said preventing tobacco use early in life is vital, because the root cause of most cardiovascular disease is in childhood and adolescence.
She said Missouri needs to do more to prevent young people from smoking. "Unfortunately, we are a little behind, but it's not too late," she said.
Missouri's health department does have educational efforts to fight tobacco use among young people, but relies on federal rather than state money.
"I think we're doing the best we can with limited resources," Janet Wilson, head of the department's health promotion unit, said in a telephone interview. But, she said, there's no question that states that have invested in strong teen smoking prevention programs have seen results.
She said increasing tobacco prices, involving youths in advocacy efforts for tobacco-free communities, effective smoking cessation programs and educational media campaigns can make a difference to reduce the number of young smokers.
And 11-year-old Nikolas Fischer hopes that will be the case. He said he was glad the attorney general was trying to spend tobacco-related money on tobacco-related issues. He questioned why the state had spent millions of it elsewhere. "I think a lot of it should have been spent to prevent kids from smoking," he said.