By Chuck Tauman of Portland, Oregon. Chuck is a trial lawyer, political consultant and lobbyist. He is also the President of Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon.
Big tobacco continues to reap record profits from selling an addictive product that, when used as intended, kills its best customers. With a business model that is both simple and simply repulsive, they prey upon the young and disadvantaged in hopes of creating an addiction to nicotine and a lifetime dependence on their products and the income stream that goes with it.
Frankly Oregon hasn't done enough to protect our children and our communities from these drug pushers. But this legislative session there is an opportunity to make a real investment in fighting back.
For the past 15 years I have been on the front lines of the fight against big tobacco. Both in the courtroom as a trial lawyer in the two headline tobacco cases in Oregon and in the court of public opinion as President of the Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon (TOFCO), Oregon's leading anti-tobacco advocacy group, I have looked big tobacco in the eye and they are evil. In the late 1990's I was privileged to be part of the trial team that beat Philip Morris in the first major tobacco trial in Oregon. That case went to the US Supreme Court three times resulting last year in a significant recovery and an infusion of more than $56 million to Oregon's general fund. The second case, also against Philip Morris, involving the "low-tar cigarette fraud", was retried last year with another victory against big tobacco.
I was there in 1998, when 46 states, including Oregon, and the big tobacco companies entered into a legal settlement (Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement or TMSA) estimated at $221 billion over the first 25 years, to compensate states for past and future smoking-caused expenditures. The intent of the TMSA was clear: Prevent and reduce tobacco use, especially among children, and address the financial toll of tobacco on states.
When Oregon's share of TMSA dollars reached Oregon in 2003, polls showed that 85 percent of Oregonians supported spending those funds on tobacco prevention and cessation. Unfortunately, Oregon decided to use TMSA dollars to pay bond debt. Unbelievably, not one penny of Oregon's TMSA money (over a billion dollars to date) has been spent on tobacco prevention or control. Make no mistake: big tobacco hailed this as a big win. Failing to invest TMSA dollars in tobacco prevention gave them another decade worth of addicts.
For the first time in a decade, we have the opportunity to invest TMSA dollars toward the original purpose: compensating Oregon for taxpayer money spent on patients and family members with tobacco-related diseases and reducing tobacco use especially by Oregon's children. Our neighbors to the north and south have wisely invested their TMSA dollars in tobacco prevention, education and cessation and have seen an incredible return on that investment by saving millions, sometimes billions, in medical costs but more importantly by saving lives. Washington State's tobacco prevention program saved the state more than $5 in tobacco-related hospitalization costs for every $1 spent on the program. Over the 10-year period, the program prevented nearly 36,000 hospitalizations, saving $1.5 billion compared to $260 million spent. California's tobacco control program reduced health care costs by $134 billion, over 50 times more than the $2.4 billion spent on the program.
Of the $1 billion on TMSA payments receive by Oregon to date, NOT ONE PENNY has been spent on tobacco prevention.
But Oregon, this year, has a chance to make things right, to fulfill the promise of the TMSA and keep faith with the will of Oregon citizens. A proposal currently before the 2013 legislature lays out a plan for investing $120 million in proven prevention strategies and improving children's health. Championed by a broad coalition of leading tobacco control and health advocates, the TMSA proposal would go a long way toward making up for the missed opportunities over the last decade.
Tobacco remains the number one cause of preventable death in Oregon, each year accounting for nearly 7,000 deaths and close to $2.4 billion in health costs. Oregonians have always known the right thing to do - use TMSA money to fight big tobacco. Let's hope the Legislature has the political will and wisdom to restore Oregonians' trust and fulfill the promise of the TMSA to invest in tobacco prevention and the cost of tobacco-related disease in Oregon.