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Legislators approve measure to repeal tobacco prevention and control trust fund

A measure to repeal the Hawaii tobacco prevention and control trust fund passed final readings Tuesday in the state House and Senate.

But amendments added during conference between the two chambers have broadened the scope of the bill.

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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. Funds have been administered by the Hawaii Community Foundation since 2000.

Currently, the trust fund receives 12.5% of the tobacco settlement money Hawaii gets each year. In 2020 that amounted to $4.76 million.

HB 1296, however, will stop that allocation and calls for unencumbered trust fund balances to be transferred to the state general fund on June 30, 2025.

Money in the trust 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.

Lola Irvin, administrator of the state Department of Health’s Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion division, which distributes the annual tobacco settlement payments, said there is a “solid infrastructure” in place for working with the Hawaii Community Foundation to invest and manage those dollars and maximize returns.

According to Irvin, $109 million has been invested in the trust fund, and $105 million has been spent. Because of the way the money has been invested, there is $59 million in the fund.

“It’s not taxpayer money. It is money from tobacco companies,” she said. “(The trust fund) has been the best and most appropriate way to spend the money. We’ve been able to help people quit smoking and help with youth prevention. We’ve had more than 70% reduction in youth smoking rates and more than 30% for adults.

“…We do appreciate the fact that we can continue the programs through 2025, but we are concerned in terms of what that transition might look like once that trust fund is repealed.”

If the trust fund is repealed, the DOH will have to work with the Legislature to secure funding in the future, she said.

“We’re very disappointed and believe that this is the wrong and dangerous move by the Legislature,” said Cynthia Au, government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “It threatens the overall health of the state, and we should be investing more into protecting our keiki and have continual resources for those who want to quit (tobacco), especially since more people are smoking during the pandemic.”

Au told the Tribune-Herald in March that smoking kills about 1,400 Hawaii residents each year and accounts for about a quarter of cancer deaths in the state.

The state has seen a decline in combustible cigarette use, but the use of electronic smoking devices among Hawaii’s youth is on the rise, she said at that time.

As approved, however, House Bill 1296 not only repeals the trust fund but also:

• Prohibits contracts for the management of the tobacco prevention and control trust fund from extending beyond June 30, 2025.

• Limits the tobacco settlement special fund to $4.3 million.

• Requires an annual report on trust fund expenditures prior to the regular legislative sessions in 2022, 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026.

• Allocates 26% of the tobacco settlement special fund into the university revenue-undertakings fund until July 1, 2033, among other provisions.

The latest version passed in the Senate 21-4.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, who represents Puna and Ka‘u, joined Sens. Stanley Chang, Kurt Fevella, Les Ihara Jr., Bennette Misalucha, Sharon Moriwaki, Clarence Nishihara and Maile Shimabukuro in voting yes with reservations.

Hilo Sen. Laura Acasio along with Sens. Rosalyn Baker, Karl Rhoads and Brian Taniguchi cast the four “no” votes.

In the House, Puna Rep. Greggor Ilagan and West Hawaii Rep. Jeanne Kapela voted no, along with Reps. Lynn DeCoite, Sharon Har, Mark Hashem, Lauren Matsumoto, Bob McDermott, Val Okimoto, Roy Takumi and James Kunane Tokioka.

“My vote relied on the state attorney general’s opinion that transferring these funds would violate the tobacco settlement agreement,” Acasio said in an emailed statement. “I was also concerned that certain provisions in the conference draft were never discussed in earlier committees, which means the public did not get to consider them or give input.”

San Buenaventura said prevention programs will be included in the state budget, which ensures continued funding, but her reservation on the bill stems from the elimination of the trust fund, which means a possibility that smoking cessation programs might not be as well funded.

But during times of economic crisis, “we do need to grab as many funds as there are available” to help shore up the state’s budget deficit, she said.

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However, San Buenaventura said she’s been in the Legislature long enough to know that if circumstances change, “we can always repeal and put it back to the way it was” or amend the measure in the future.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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