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Using Tobacco Money Wisely

State budgets are taking a beating in the current recession. So it's not surprising that most states are inclined to use their share of the 1998 tobacco settlement to help plug holes in their budgets.

It is unfortunate, however, that all but a handful of states are not reserving more of those billions for a purpose most of them originally endorsed: antismoking campaigns.

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Under the settlement, tobacco companies agreed to give states $246 billion over 25 years and limit their promotion of smoking. Although the settlement didn't specify how states would use the money, most states promised that programs to prevent smoking would be a priority.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that states devote, at a minimum, 20 to 25 percent of their settlement funds for such programs.

A report from antismoking health groups notes that only five states - Massachusetts, Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, and Mississippi - follow the CDC guideline. Fourteen others spend at least half the recommended amount on prevention programs.

A concern is that some states with effective programs now will divert funds away. Florida has cut 20 percent from its highly successful $37.3 million campaign to turn kids from cigarettes. In California, Gov. Gray Davis has decided to use some of the tobacco money as security for state borrowing.

States would be wise, and in the long run frugal, to direct the recommended percentage toward reducing the number of smokers.