By Karesa Knight-Wilkerson
Budget years are always interesting at the Indiana Statehouse. This year is no different. I am currently the tobacco control coordinator and the executive director for Intersect Inc. Our organization works on health initiatives that affect our community, including tobacco, alcohol and drug use issues.
When I moved to Madison County in 2002 to begin my job as the tobacco prevention coordinator, the state legislators had pledged to use $32 million of the Master Settlement Agreement Fund to combat tobacco use in Indiana. Not long after the contracts were signed, then Gov. O’Bannon raided the fund and had to be convinced to return the funding into the trust to honor the state contracts with local communities that the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Agency had issued.
Since that reduction, funding for tobacco control has continued to decline. The Indiana Tobacco Control funding has been showing results with a little over $9 million, including decreasing both youth and adult smoking rates. The budget just passed out of the House of Representatives with a $4.2 million cut, to $5 million. It is now in the Senate for debate.
I have talked to some legislators that tell me the federal mandates on health care are causing them to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars to expand Medicaid. When Indiana spends well over $300 million a year on tobacco-related health care costs (low birth weight babies, cancer, heart disease, COPD and emphysema) one has to wonder if it makes fiscal sense to cut the very program that could continue to assist in decreasing that amount and instead put that funding in Medicaid to cover more people whose health is being affected by tobacco use.
I implore you to visit www.in.gov and find out who your legislator is and contact them to tell them to put the money back in tobacco control. Master Settlement Funds are not tax dollars. It is monies that the tobacco companies were ordered to pay from a lawsuit in 1998 from 47 state attorneys general in order to recoup costs in their states from funding used to take care of people ill from tobacco-related illnesses.
Karesa Knight-Wilkerson is executive director of Intersect Inc. in Anderson.