When the Utah Legislature in 2011 ordered the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control to cut its budget by $1.6 million over two years in the face of a lagging economy, the sacrifice involved store closures and employee layoffs, despite objections that the cuts would hurt local economies.
But one place that legislators steadfastly refused to cut was the Parents Empowered's campaign to prevent underage drinking.
Key lawmakers believed that the ParentsEmpowered.org public relations campaign was so important that, when the liquor department cut its budget by $500,000 in 2009, legislators restored the outlay the following year. In addition, then-Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, called for an audit of the liquor department to determine other services that could be cut.
It's all about protecting the children, right?
But when it comes to smoking, and the detrimental health effects and the harm to children that habit wreaks, legislators have an entirely different attitude.
The Utah Lung Association noted in a recent press release that Utah has failed to protect children from Big Tobacco's marketing tactics by neglecting to invest in programs proven to reduce tobacco use, according to the American Lung Association's "State of Tobacco Control" report.
In fact, the report gave Utah's Prevention and Control Program Funding an "F." It also got an "F" in cessation coverage and a "C" in the cigarette tax category, but that's only because Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, managed to push through a $1 increase in the tax in 2010, a battle he said was the toughest of his political life.
Could the tolerant attitude toward tobacco use have anything to do with the $75,000 that legislators and legislative PACs have reaped from tobacco interests the last two election cycles?
Ray said it took him two years to get his cigarette tax hike passed. The first year, he proposed a 50-cent per-pack tax increase. After that failed, he doubled down, pushing the hike to a dollar. He finally got it passed by shaming the Legislature with the fact that smoking caused $345 million a year in health costs in Utah, including a $104 million-per-year cost to Medicaid.
Ray succeeded, but not without being bloodied by the tobacco industry's lobbyists, who directed between $500 and $2,500 to each of the campaigns of mostly Republican legislators in 2010 and again in 2012.
Ray, by the way, didn't get a dime.
"The 11th annual report shows how money is often the root of the leading cause of preventable death, as state and federal policy makers are failing to battle a deep-pocketed, ever evolving tobacco industry," said the Lung Association release.
Tobacco companies spend $49.1 million in marketing in Utah annually, according to Tobacco Free Kids.
The Lung Association says that tobacco causes an estimated 1,156 deaths in Utah annually and costs the state's economy $662.6 million in health care and lost productivity.
And while Utah receives $153 million in tobacco-related revenue, it only invests 30 percent of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends should be spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
When the major tobacco companies settled lawsuits brought by numerous states in the 1990s, Utah's share of the settlement was $42 million annually. But only $4 million of that goes to prevention and cessation programs. Most of it goes to state savings and the general fund.
In fact, the Legislature and then-Gov. Michael Leavitt fought then-Attorney General Jan Graham's decision to join the lawsuit. So when the settlement came, with Utah's big windfall, Graham refused to let Leavitt and the Legislature share the credit. That infuriated lawmakers, who passed a law stripping the attorney general of some of her duties. However, they repealed that law a year later in the wake of widespread public outrage.
But our legislators, undaunted, appear still beholden to Big Tobacco and its bottomless pockets. Some habits are mighty tough to break.