Study by UMass Amherst Says 1992 State Anti-Smoking Ballot Question Lacked Post-Election Plan to Target Spending

AMHERST, Mass. - Massachusetts voters passed an anti-smoking ballot initiative in 1992, but its backers did not do the necessary follow-up to make sure all the money it generated went to tobacco prevention, education, and cessation efforts, according to a report by researchers at the University of Massachusetts. The report, "The Battle to Appropriate Tobacco Tax Revenues in Massachusetts," was published in November 1998. It was funded by a $250,000 grant from the American Cancer Society.

Today, nearly half of the tax revenue from the anti-smoking referendum, known as Question 1, is being spent on programs unrelated to tobacco issues, says the report, conducted by Wendy A. Ritch, a research fellow, and Michael E. Begay, professor of community health studies in the UMass School of Public Health and Health Sciences. The absence of post-passage strategies and goals within the Coalition for a Healthy Future, the sponsors of the ballot question, were the key reasons for the outcome, they concluded.

Other factors, including political infighting within the coalition and within the Legislature, formal and informal lobbying by the tobacco industry, and pressure from health groups in the state with competing agendas, were also responsible for nearly half of the money raised by Question 1 being spent on programs not envisioned by the original ballot question, Ritch and Begay say.

The 1992 ballot question raised the tax on cigarettes by 25 cents per pack and boosted the wholesale price of smokeless tobacco by 25 percent. Ritch and Begay found that of $175 million raised by the tobacco tax between Jan. 1, 1993, and June 30, 1994, only 22.7 percent of the money was appropriated for tobacco-specific programs. Another 27.4 percent was appropriated for programs with limited tobacco-related content, and the remaining 49.9 percent was spent on programs with little or no relation to tobacco prevention, education, and cessation. Money generated by the tobacco tax was also used to supplant funding for pre-existing public health programs, something that is explicitly prohibited by the ballot question, the researchers say.

And once the initial spending pattern was set by the Legislature and administration in the first year, that set a precedent for subsequent years, Ritch and Begay say. For future similar initiatives, public health advocates in Massachusetts need to have immediate post-passage plans that include using lobbyists, a media coordinator, and a paid grassroots political organizer to take advantage of support for such ballot questions, Ritch and Begay conclude.