COLUMBIA — Opponents of cigarette smoking fear that more teenagers will begin the habit in South Carolina and fewer adults will quit now that prevention programs are getting no state money.
For the last two years South Carolina has spent $2 million on smoking cessation and prevention. At least a half-dozen states have reduced funding for such programs in the economic downturn, but South Carolina was the only one to eliminate it this year.
South Carolina and Connecticut are the only two states that spend nothing on prevention, according to the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Before the money was allocated in 2006-07, South Carolina spent nothing for several years.
"It's a real penny-wise and pound-foolish move to cut these programs back. We know they work to reduce smoking, and reductions in smoking lead to reductions in health care," said Peter Fisher, the group's vice president for state issues.
Since 1999 the youth smoking rate in South Carolina, an historically tobacco-friendly state, has dropped by half, from 36 percent to 18 percent. The teen movement Rage Against the Haze has helped.
The program for 13- to 18-year-olds started in 2002 with tobacco settlement money. Teens educate their peers on the health dangers of tobacco, according to anti-smoking groups.
Now the program is unfunded and is using leftover money on limited training sessions and events.
For the last two years, organizers and teen volunteers have traveled to football games across the state to talk to teens. But their trailer and tent will remained parked Friday on the first full night of the high school football season.
It means the peer-to-peer message won't reach as many teens, said 16-year-old Alesia McFarlin, of Greenville, who signed on last year.
"Adult conversation makes it like somebody's talking down to them instead of informing them," she said.
For the 22 percent of South Carolina's adults who already smoke, the state has continued its 800-number tobacco quit line with federal money, though it has scaled back its follow-up counseling sessions. The line gets roughly 250 calls monthly.
In the past, everyone who called got five return intervention calls. Now those are limited to smokers who are uninsured, on Medicaid or pregnant, said Mary-Kathryn Craft from the Department of Health and Environmental Control's tobacco prevention division.
Other callers get just the initial talk with a quit coach, though workers on the state's health plan have access to a similar quit-for-life counseling program.
Asked about the cuts, lawmakers point to the failed attempt to increase the state's 7-cents-per-pack cigarette tax, the lowest in the nation. Missouri is the next lowest at 17 cents. As of June, New York had highest tax at $2.75.
The South Carolina Legislature's plan would have raised the tax by 50 cents per pack, and put most of the money toward health care, though $5 million yearly would have funded smoking cessation and prevention.
The plan died after legislators were unable to override the veto of Gov. Mark Sanford, who wanted to use the money to cut income taxes.
South Carolina has never come close to spending what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended it should on prevention programs. The agency has issued recommendations since the 1998 tobacco settlement between the industry and states.
The state's $2 million allocation earned it a national ranking of 45th for 2007-08, according to the latest Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids report. The federal agency had advised spending between $24 million and $62 million.
For the current fiscal year, it recommends a flat $62 million.
However, Rep. Tracy Edge, chairman of a House subcommittee that handles health care in the budget, noted that the state has markedly changed since he took office in 1996.
It has gone from fighting for tobacco rights to nearly passing the first cigarette tax hike in 31 years.
Cities across the state ban smoking in restaurants and bars.
"Glorification of smoking is gone," but spending on prevention programs hasn't been a priority, partly because some lawmakers doubt their success or think smokers should be able to quit on their own, said the North Myrtle Beach Republican.
"I think we haven't transformed totally yet, but we've come a heck of a long way," he said.
While he expects the Legislature to put money in the programs once the economy improves and the cigarette tax hike passes, he said it will probably never climb to the CDC-recommended levels.