The House Public Health Committee produced a replacement for the strangled Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi today. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who is chairman of the committee, made it clear that he was seeking to replace the Partnership after former tobacco lobbyist Gov. Haley Barbour and State Treasurer Tate Reeves challenged the legality of the Partnership in court last year.
Barbour claimed that the Partnership's automatic debit of $20 million from annual payments to the state from tobacco companies was unconstitutional and required more oversight from legislators, along with the governor's annual budget signature, to be legitimate.
The case regarding the legitimacy sits in Supreme Court, but Barbour successfully cut funding to the Partnership late last year until a judge decides the case.
The smoking cessation program is financially dead until then, so Holland produced House Bill 349 to fill in for the Partnership.
The act provides for "comprehensive and statewide tobacco education," that Holland said will mirror the best qualities of the Partnership.
"Though it's not the Partnership, I can say that this is the double first cousin, on the Momma's side, of the Partnership," Holland said.
The bill will establish a Tobacco Control Commission Fund, to which the legislature will divert $20 million. The money will then go to agencies and programs similar to the ones employed by the Partnership, including tobacco awareness programs in public schools and after-school programs, and tobacco awareness commercials on night time television--all aimed at children.
Sandra Shelson, executive director of the Partnership, could not verify that any former Partnership employees would serve the new program, though she said it sounded "logical."
Dr. Ed Thomson, former state officer of the Mississippi State Department of Health, said the state needed about $20 million to effectively blanket citizens with effective tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.
"The threshold to effective cessation programs in the state in 1997, based on population figures, was about $18 million. We should assume it would cost a little more than that, but the ($20 million) Partnership program was effective. Tobacco cessation is not cheap, but it's cheaper than the alternative," Thompson said. "Cigarettes are about $3 a pack, but for every pack sold in Mississippi, the state pays just about $8 in medical costs due to tobacco-related illness. It has cost us a lot more to treat the illness than to reduce smoking."
Shelson said HB 349 had her full approval.
"We offer our full support to HB 349. We think it's very important," Shelson said. "While we would like to keep the Partnership running, it's more important that the children of Mississippi have a true cessation program dedicated to prevention."
HB 349 passed the Public Health Committee with unanimous approval. Holland said he expected the bill to be on the floor of the House for a vote at 2 p.m. Thursday, but the House adjourned minutes after convening, putting all bills on hold until Friday.
The Senate had even less enthusiasm Thursday. Its members adjourned the Senate session soon after 10 a.m.