Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, April 23, 1999

Don’t blow the
tobacco settlement

WHEN there are not-so-nice tidings to share, I often go the good news/bad news route. Then the latter isn't so depressing. With that in mind, here's some good and bad news about a whole lot of money coming Hawaii's way.

First, the knee-thumper: The state is supposed to receive approximately $1.4 billion over 25 years (or about $43 million annually) from its negotiated settlement with those nasty tobacco companies. Hooray!

Now the head-slapper: Most of the money WON'T be used for actual smoking prevention and control programs. Huh? In fact, the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii will be downright grateful if the Legislature even earmarks 25 percent of that windfall to actually fight tobacco usage in the islands.

It all comes down to one word: kuleana. In a fiscally bedraggled state like this one, pennies from heaven will be fought over with gusto by the executive and legislature.

The governor wants to put half of the settlement into a "rainy-day fund" and divert the other half to the Department of Health. The DOH would then give up to half of its share to the Department of Human Services to provide health-care coverage for uninsured keiki. The remaining 25 percent would be spent on fitness, general health issues and, oh yes, smoking prevention and cessation programs.

But less than a lousy quarter of every dollar? That seems like chump change, especially given the magnitude of the tobacco problem in Hawaii. Consider that:

Bullet For every three high school students in the islands, one of them probably smokes.

Bullet About 4,000 youngsters start puffing every year.

Bullet Smoking kills more people in this state annually than car crashes, illegal drugs, murders, suicides, alcohol and AIDS -- combined.

Bullet The tobacco industry spends $23 million in local advertising and promotional expenditures.

Bullet Kids are three times more impressionable than adults when it comes to tobacco advertising, and are MORE likely to be influenced by cigarette marketing than by peer pressure.

SO when the Legislature comes up with a plan this session to dole out the tobacco settlement dough, it will be either good news or bad.

The latter was hinted at by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who said earlier this month during a speech in Hawaii: "If (lawmakers) don't spend this money wisely, you may be able to build some bridges, you may be able to fix some telephone poles and that sort of stuff. But you will still have tobacco as the No. 1 cause of death and you will rue the day that you didn't spend that money to get rid of the scourge."

That's the bad news. The good news is that, if lawmakers do agree to allocate a hefty part of this money for what it was intended, Hawaii will become a healthier, happier place while sticking it to the tobacco companies in the process. Take a hike, Joe Camel.

Just think: Fewer smokers polluting the air. Less cigarette butts littering the ground. And a smaller fortune wasted on cancer sticks and subsequent hospitalization, suffering and death. Now, that's what you call a real windfall.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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