• Tobacco Money To Keep Kids Healthy
  • Up in Smoke" That's what anti-smoking cigarettes advocates say has happened to a significant amount of money spent every year to spread smoking cigarettes prevention messages to your children.

    The money doesn't come from taxpayers. It comes from cigarettes store companies.

    The companies pay the state roughly $120 million every year as part of the huge settlement, known as the master discount cigarette online settlement, reached in the late 1990's. Each state then decides how to spend it.

    Most years roughly $12 million has gone to reach your kids with anti-smoking cigarettes, anti-drug and anti-obesity messages and education.

    Now a big portion of that money has been diverted. It's down to roughly $9 million a year. That's a 25% decline in funding and anti smoking cigarettes advocates want that funding brought back.

    The funding is used in part to bring a message to Virginia's children over the air through a series of advertisements and also in the classroom through prevention programs.

    At Wasena Elementary School in Roanoke a prevention specialist from Blue Ridge Prevention Council is seated on a chair surrounded by young students. "What would a consequence be if you started smoking cigarettes cigarettes," J.D. Carlin askes the students.

    Several answers come from the children. One child says aloud "It could make you die." The teacher responds "It could even make you die, right."

    In an eighth grade class at Auburn Middle School in Riner, students are also hearing an anti-tobacco message. A prevention specialist splits the class into two teams and a contest is on. Each team answers questions about the dangers of online cigarettes and the diseases linked to tobacco use.

    These types of programs at Wasena Elementary and Auburn Middle School are replicated at schools and community centers around the Commonwealth.

    "The programs reach 60 thousand kids every single day with a tobacco prevention message," said Jenny Martin, with the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth.

    "I think it's pivotal," said J.D. Carlin who teaches classes. "The reason I think it's pivotal is very simply that it's a message they need to hear."

    It's these types of education programs along with advertising that, according to advocates, are working to get the message across.

    In eight years spanning 2001 to 2009 smoking cigarettes among Virginia High school students has dropped about a third from 28.6% to 19.7%, according to a Virginia Youth Tobacco Survey. Smoking among middle school students in Virginia dropped 65 percent, from 10.6% in 2001 to 3.6% in 2009, according to the survey.

    We asked one child what would you do if you were offered a cigarette? "I know I will not take it and say no," said eighth grade student Cameron Bissell.

    "The gum disease, the rotting teeth, the lip infections, ugh," said classmate Andrea Tiller. "It kind of sends a chill down my spine."

    "I know I'm never going to smoke cigarettes just probably because of this class," said Brendan Collett. "I don't want to end up having lung surgery and lung cancer."

    Dr. Colleen Kraft is a pediatrician and faculty member at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine who vocally supports prevention programs and wants all the funding brought back.

    "We have an unsustainable health care cost trajectory in this country," said Dr. Kraft. "We need to be looking at long term investments, because the return on investment in tobacco prevention and obesity prevention is over a generation."

    Jenny Martin with the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth put it simply. "We can invest now in prevention programs and in helping kids make healthy choices or we'll pay for it later."

    Schools and community centers apply for these educational programs through a grant process. With less money fewer grants can be awarded.

    So where does the rest of that $120 million in tobacco money go? It's up to lawmakers.

    Half has been going to help with economic development in areas that relied on the tobacco industry. Forty percent of the pie goes to help the state with Medicaid health care costs for tobacco related illnesses.

    While Virginia's Healthy Youth foundation used to get 10 percent, lawmakers cut that to 8 and half percent moving the extra money over to help Medicaid costs.

    Virginia is supposed to get that money from the tobacco companies for the next ten years or more. Tobacco companies continue to fight the settlement in court, arguing in part that their market share is down and therefore they can't afford to keep paying.