A measure that would repeal the Hawaii tobacco prevention and control trust fund has passed through the state House and is now before the state Senate for consideration.
As it is currently written, House Bill 1296 instead would allocate $5.7 million in general funds to the state Department of Health in fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23 for tobacco prevention and control efforts.
Unencumbered funds remaining in the trust fund as of July 1 would go into the state general fund if the bill becomes law.
The trust fund receives annually a portion of the state’s tobacco settlement special fund and, as its name suggests, is used for tobacco prevention and control efforts.
The legislation initially aimed to repeal the special fund — into which the state’s tobacco settlement money is deposited — and an enforcement special fund, in addition to the tobacco prevention and control trust fund, but those provisions were removed in the amended version of the bill approved by the House.
Cynthia Au, interim government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, which helps with the advocacy of the ACS, said tobacco issues are among the organization’s top priorities.
Smoking kills about 1,400 Hawaii residents each year and accounts for about a quarter of Hawaii cancer deaths, she said.
The trust fund is responsible for funding a majority of tobacco control and prevention activities, Au said.
“Right now, we have seen a decline in combustible cigarette use in the state, and we’re happy for that because it’s due to these funds that helped contribute to these cessation (programs),” Au said.
But now is not the time to dismantle these funds because of the rise of e-cigarette use among Hawaii’s youth, she said.
“We should be doing everything we can to keep our communities healthy and safe, and that means building a strong public health infrastructure, including protecting funding for comprehensive tobacco-control programs,” Au said. ” … Without a reliable source of funding for tobacco prevention, we could see more youth using tobacco products, more lives lost and greater health care costs.”
The Tobacco Prevention and Control Advisory Board advises the state Department of Health on the use of the funds, which have been administered by the Hawaii Community Foundation since 2000.
Tom Matsuda, a program director at HCF, said it’s often assumed the settlement money has to be used to prevent tobacco use, but there’s no such restriction. The money allocated to the trust fund, however, must be used for tobacco prevention and control efforts.
Legislation that created the trust fund also requires it to be administered by a nonprofit organization that can invest the funds to generate more revenue to support prevention efforts, he said.
Currently, the trust fund receives 12.5% of the tobacco settlement money Hawaii gets each year. In 2020 that amounted to $4.76 million, Matsuda said.
The trust fund had $59.8 million at the end of 2020.
As part of its work with the trust fund, HCF administers grants and contracts with a number of organizations to help reduce tobacco consumption in Hawaii.
“The goal is not to just grow the account,” Matsuda said. “At the same time we’re investing and earning additional dollars, we are also spending substantial amounts to support these various grants and contracts.”
According to Matsuda, about $18.6 million of the trust fund is committed to long-term grants and contracts.
Among other efforts, that money is used for the Hawaii Tobacco Quitline, communications to promote the Quitline and for an education campaign about the dangers of vaping, and a smoking cessation grant program that provides money to 16 nonprofit organizations statewide.
The remainder of the trust fund’s balance is invested to raise additional money.
The total cost of programming in 2020 was $6.9 million, said Matsuda, about $2 million more than the trust fund received.
“… If the trust fund is repealed, and if instead the money goes to the DOH, the DOH does not have the ability to invest general fund dollars to raise additional revenue as a state entity,” he said. “They cannot do that.”
Hawaii County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen, The American Heart Association, Blue Zone Project, Hawaii Substance Abuse Coalition, Hawaii Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Hawaii COPD Coalition were among the dozens of individuals and groups that opposed HB 1296 in written testimony submitted before the House committee hearings on the matter.
Michael Zehner, with the Hawaii Smokers Alliance, was among those who submitted testimony supporting the measure.
“The current use of tobacco settlement funds is a ‘black hole’ with little visibility or accountability,” he wrote. “As it stands, millions of it goes to private lobbyist groups. Making the money part of the general fund will help both the public and lawmakers know how the money is spent and will give the flexibility that is needed.”
Testifier Kathy Kim said HB 1296 “is just common sense with the economic mess we are in.”
Although she had voted against the original version of the bill, both in committee and on the floor, state Rep. Jeanne Kapela, a West Hawaii Democrat, voted yes, with reservations, during the third reading of the legislation.
Kapela said Tuesday she changed her vote after the Finance Committee “did a little bit of tweaking,” but still has “very strong reservations defunding programs that fund anti-smoking initiatives, cancer research and protection of our keiki.”
The Legislature, she said, has a history of taking special fund monies, without finding or looking at new ways of funding projects supported by those allocations.
“We need to make sure we’re generating revenue and not just taking money away from these really vital programs,” Kapela said.
Puna Rep. Greggor Ilagan cast the lone “no” vote for the amended measure in the Finance Committee and was one of six lawmakers who voted against the bill during the third reading.
The measure passed first reading in the state Senate on Thursday and was referred to the chamber’s Health, Higher Education, and Ways and Means committees.
No committee hearings were set as of Friday.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.