Photo by Bulletin file photo
A tobacco product in the early 2000s from a Germany company seemed to point toward bootlegging and the black market.
In November 1998 -- 15 years ago -- an agreement was reached that smothered the widespread use of tobacco in the United States. Tobacco is still widely used, but the agreement, between 46 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, forced the four largest tobacco companies in the United States to pony up a lot of money or else close up shop.
The companies capitulated to the demands of the states, and accusations that the companies used deceptive ads to push cigarettes on unsuspecting customers.
The states sought billions. They said the tobacco companies had to compensate them for huge Medicaid expenses to treat the ill effects of tobacco.
The lead attorney for the states, Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, said the suit was based on a simple legal notion – “You caused the health crisis; you pay for it.”
After a long, bitter battle, the court ruled against the tobacco companies, ordering them to stop the advertising programs (such as those with a character named Joe Camel) and pay, in perpetuity, cash to each of the states every year.
The long ordeal was depicted in the 1999 movie The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, about a former tobacco company employee who blew the whistle and gave Moore the evidence he needed to press his claim. The insider, Jeffry Wigand, continued to talk openly about the deception of the tobacco companies, despite death threats.
Wigand eventually appeared on the 60 Minutes news show. He was interviewed by newsman Mike Wallace. Wallace and the 60 Minutes crew had to overcome the objections of the CBS owners to broadcast the interview.
In the 1998 settlement, tobacco companies agreed to pay at least $206 billion over the first 25 years, about $10 billion per year.
The state's use the money in different ways. In Nebraska, some of it is used for general obligations, but some of it specifically pays for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
The Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services spends about $2.3 million a year to fund the Tobacco Free Nebraska program.
That money funds nine coalitions across the state, including the group, Tobacco Free Lincoln County.
In the settlement, the four manufacturers also agreed not to "take any action, directly or indirectly, to target youth within any settling state in the advertising, promotion or marketing of tobacco products, or take any action the primary purpose of which is to initiate, maintain or increase the incidence of youth smoking within any settling state."
Before the settlement, tobacco use rates had declined since 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General issued his first critical report on tobacco, and the word was out: tobacco causes cancer and a host of other problems.
Since then, public perceptions regarding tobacco have continued to change and restrictions have increased on smoking.
In North Platte, 10 years after the master settlement agreement, the city council passed a clean air ordinance, in June 2008.
The ordinance, No. 3728, prohibited smoking in all facilities, including vehicles, which are owned, leased or operated by the city. It also forbid smoking within bark parks and ball fields, as well as in the bleachers and grandstands, and near the entrances to the recreation center or public library, and within 50 feet of any carnival ride in any city park.
Last summer, the city council extended its “50-foot no-smoke zone” to the splash pad at Memorial Park.
Statewide, a year after North Platte's clean air ordinance, the Nebraska Clean Indoor Air Act was enacted in 2009, prohibiting smoking in nearly all public indoor places. The law allows motels to designate up to 20% of their guest rooms for smoking.
With smoking forbidden indoors, bars, restaurants and clubs soon built outdoor “beer gardens” where smokers can light up, as reported in a Bulletin article entitled “Land of the Free.”
According to the American Lung Association, "To date, compliance has been exceptional."
On Jan. 1, 2010 tobacco-free campus policies also went into effect at Mid-Plains Community College. And, all K-12 schools in Lincoln County prohibit tobacco use on their property.
In addition, many apartment owners and managers in North Platte now have policies prohibiting smoking inside their units, including Autumn Park of the North Platte Housing Authority, according to George Haws, who coordinates the Lincoln County Tobacco Free Coalition.
Haws said smoke-free apartment policies are becoming more commonplace across the country, but the coalition has more work to do.
The American Lung Association is also harsh on Nebraska, at least in some regards. The lung association gives Nebraska a grade of A in "smoke-free air" but the state gets grades of Fs for tobacco cessation and prevention programs, and cigarette taxation.
The federal government has also increased tobacco taxes over the years.
By 2006, a smoker sent 39 cents per pack in taxes to Washington, D.C. Another 64 cents a pack went to the state of Nebraska.
Nebraska's cigarette tax remains at 64 cents, but in 2009, the federal government jumped the tax on cigarettes to $1.01 a pack.
Bills to increase Nebraska's excise taxes on tobacco products have been introduced in the Legislature every year since 2011, and will probably be considered again in 2014.
There is talk of using tobacco tax revenue to offset property taxes.
However, tobacco control advocates such as Haws say their main concern is not raising money for the state, but combating the high costs of tobacco use in society, and the fact that "some of our state's youth continue to be attracted to tobacco."
They point to statistics that show every time taxes on tobacco products increase, youth tobacco initiation rates go down, and more adult users also quit.
Haws and other tobacco control advocates also want to see more money from the 1998 tobacco settlement to be used for prevention and control efforts -- more than the $2.3 million for such programs in 2012 and 2013.
By comparison, Haws notes that tobacco companies spend about $58.8 million marketing products each year in Nebraska.
Haws has been coordinating the Lincoln County Tobacco Free Coalition since February. He said the coalition does the following:
• Encourages residents to keep homes and vehicles smoke-free, and asks people to pledge to have a smoke-free home and vehicle.
• Works with Community Connections Substance Abuse Prevention system and schools on tobacco prevention in children and teenagers.
• Works with apartment owners and managers who want help in establishing smoke-free apartment policies.
• Works with local law enforcement agencies on tobacco sales compliance checks, to be sure clerks are requiring buyers to be 18 years or older.
• Points people who want to quit to helpful resources.
"Tobacco use rates have gone down over the years, but tobacco continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in the United States," Haws said.
He said tobacco companies are continually developing products to attract new users. Menthol cigarettes were followed by dissolvable tobacco products and flavored little cigars, he said, "and now we have electronic (vapor) cigarettes."
Although research is incomplete, sometimes e-cigarettes are touted as smoking cessation products. Some e-cigarettes contain a mixture of nicotine and flavorings, while others release a flavored vapor without nicotine.
Haws said e-smokes concern him, because statistics show they have become more accepted by youth during the last year or so, and might lead to smoking more harmful products.
Haws said secondhand smoke continues to be a concern, especially in homes and vehicles.
"Children, people with chronic health problems and the elderly are most affected," he said.
Concern for small children has motivated the Lincoln County Tobacco Free coalition to join with Great Plains Regional Medical Center and local agencies to give out baby bibs that have an anti-smoking message.
The attractive bibs will carry a profound smoke-free message, Haws said, and they will be ready soon, near the 15th anniversary of the far-ranging national tobacco settlement.
This report was first published in the Nov. 6 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.