Around this time in each of the past four years, New Jersey government has been beaten up for failing to spend any of its massive revenue from cigarette taxes and the nationwide tobacco settlement on smoking-prevention programs. Deservedly so.
Cigarette taxes of $2.70 a pack and lawsuit money from tobacco companies amounted to $921 million last year. New Jersey used it all for the general budget. Think of it as a symptom of state government’s most serious and potentially fatal illness — poor fiscal management and inability to control spending.
The state has some modest anti-smoking efforts, supported by relatively small amounts of dedicated federal funding, and they’re quite effective. A hotline for counseling and nicotine replacement therapy runs on $2.2 million in federal assistance. Another program provides counselors to new and expecting mothers who want to quit. An enforcement program ensures that retailers require tobacco buyers to be at least 19 years old. And a Rutgers-based quit-smoking program achieves long-term success of 35 percent, about 10 points above rates nationwide.
New Jersey also has discouraged tobacco use by banning smoking from schools, care and recreational facilities, stores, restaurants, most bars and nearly all workplaces.
The smoking rate in New Jersey compares favorably to that of the nation, with 15 percent of adults smoking vs. 18 percent for the U.S. Smoking may not deserve the kind of urgent effort the governor and Legislature are mounting against the opioid addiction epidemic, but surely it merits a little more.
The annual misuse of tobacco settlement funds started in he late 1990s. As if he were responding to one of those “Need cash now?” TV commercials, then-Gov. Jim McGreevey sold the future settlement payments to bondholders for a fraction of their worth. The state then spent much of that $3.5 billion in just two years.
Govs. Jon Corzine and Chris Christie managed with refinancing to claw back about a quarter of what McGreevey wasted. But Christie in 2013 ended the annual $7 million of state funding for smoking-cessation programs.
This year Christie and legislative leaders are rightly being praised for enacting laws to boost addiction-recovery programs and reduce dependency caused by prescription opioids. They’ve pledged $100 million for addiction and mental-health services.
That’s about how much the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends New Jersey spend on preventing tobacco addiction. That might be optimal considering the state’s nearly 12,000 tobacco-related deaths annually, but given the state’s finances, it’s not possible without serious budgetary reform. With this year’s tobacco tax and settlement funds increasing by $24 million, however, surely the $7 million for smoking prevention could be restored.
This nickel-and-diming of programs that benefit the public is the result of past politicians promising state workers (including themselves) salaries, benefits and pensions substantially greater than what nongovernment workers get. The cost of state government itself will increasingly crowd out sensible and necessary programs until political leaders and/or voters insist on responsible spending, taxing and borrowing.
Addictions that afflict the public would be more effectively addressed if state officials weren’t addicted to spending more than they have and leaving future generations to pay up or clean up the financial mess.