Ohio Court Rules Tobacco Settlement Funds Fair Game

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December 23, 2010; Source:  Columbus Dispatch | Ohio is calling it a major victory for residents while anti-smoking proponents are burned up over a court ruling that said it was okay for the state to spend tobacco settlement funds however they choose.  On Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that, according to the Columbus Dispatch, state officials “acted legally when they nearly emptied a fund intended for anti-smoking programs and earmarked the money for unrelated health-care purposes such as expanding Medicaid coverage.”

At issue was some $230 million left from a previous $10.1 billion settlement between tobacco companies and Ohio over claims that cigarette companies were knowingly and falsely marketing harmful products.  To Gov. Ted Strickland, the court’s ruling is an endorsement of his decision, backed by the legislature, to use that money for the state’s 2008 and 2009 budgets.

In a statement, the governor said the ruling gives the state the “resources to ensure that all children in Ohio have access to quality, affordable health-care coverage, regardless of their financial situation. This significant decision frees up state funds that can now be used to improve the lives of children and families across the state.”

Ellen Vargys, attorney for the Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation, the group set up to administer the settlement funds, called the ruling a major setback for anti-smoking efforts.  “States are not even making the small investments necessary to protect their citizens’ lives and to keep their health-care costs in line,” she said. Vargys added that Ohio is “dead last” in anti-smoking spending per capita.

In its unanimous ruling, the court said that nothing in the state’s constitution prohibited the legislature from spending the money for any purposes it chose. You can expect critics of the ruling, however, to say Justice Paul E. Pfeifer was blowing smoke when he wrote, “It is not for us to judge the wisdom of the General Assembly.”—Bruce Trachtenberg