Cancer center should not be victimized by economic crisis


POSTED: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Hawaii has won due praise for devoting much of the settlement money from tobacco companies and cigarette tax revenue to combat smoking and its consequences, and it should not stray from that effort. The state would be remiss in diverting tobacco-generated revenue intended for a new cancer care center in Kakaako in order to reduce the state's budget deficit.

State cigarette tax increases in the past three years have resulted in a $20 million fund to finance a cancer center with research applied to diagnosis and treatment at hospitals across the state. The University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Community Development Authority agreed in September on the center to be designed, billed and owned by a Maryland company selected in 2006 and leased by UH.

David McClain, the university's president, said UH has been “;working deliberately and diligently to bring our dreams to reality”; and survived “;a turbulence in capital markets”; since funding from tobacco taxes was assured to pay for it.

At a briefing earlier this week, state Sen. David Ige warned university officials that “;there are people looking at that fund, and it has been idle for two years.”; However, the project can hardly be regarded as stagnant during two years of preparation while the fund has grown to meet the cost.

Some states have raided and become addicted to funds created in 1998 by a settlement between Big Tobacco and 46 states, including Hawaii, along with tobacco tax revenue. Over the past decade, states have received $124.3 billion in tobacco tax revenue and $79.2 billion from the tobacco settlement. Of that, only $6.5 billion - 3.2 percent - has been spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

In the current fiscal year, Hawaii is expected to receive $160 million in tax and settlement funds. It is spending $11.3 million a year for tobacco prevention and cessation, or 7.1 percent of its tobacco-generated revenue. It is nearly 4 percent less than that recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but ranks Hawaii fourth highest among states for percentage of tobacco money going to those efforts.

California, New York and 15 other states already have sold bonds based on future tobacco settlement payments. The Government Accountability Office found in 2007 that only a third of the settlement money paid nationally from 2000 to 2005 went to health care or tobacco control.

State law allocates where Hawaii's tobacco settlement revenue should be directed, and 28 percent is to go to UH for medical school construction. A legislative proposal would increase the amount going to the state's “;rainy day”; fund from 24.5 percent to 30 percent, obviously to offset the state's budget shortfall, and reduce the amount going to tobacco prevention and cessation. Legislators should pause before chipping away at the tobacco fund.