While much of this week’s focus has been on how the new budget will impact educators, health advocates are also beginning to assess how their prevention efforts will be affected by the elimination of the Health and Wellness Trust Fund.
The following is a statement from Pam Seamans, Executive Director of the NC Alliance for Health:
The General Assembly has taken a giant step backward in efforts to promote the health of our children by abolishing the Health and Wellness Trust Fund–the only dedicated long-term source of funding for tobacco use and obesity prevention in our state. The HWTF was established with Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) funds, which were intended to help states address the adverse health effects and financial toll of tobacco use.
Since 2003, when the HWTF began funding youth tobacco use prevention and cessation efforts, the middle school smoking rate in North Carolina has been cut by more than half (from 9.3% to 4.3%), and the high school smoking rate has dropped by a third (from 27.3% to 16.7%). These are the LOWEST smoking rates among teens in NC history. Additionally, the HWTF provided a substantial portion of the funding for the QuitlineNC which has helped over 5000 North Carolinians end their addiction to tobacco.
The members and the staff of the HWTF Commission have made a true difference in improving the health of our state and their dedication and leadership will be greatly missed. While the Alliance is grateful that the legislature has indicated intent that a one-time allocation of funding from the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) be made to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to administer grants associated with teen tobacco prevention and obesity prevention (among other possible expenditures) there are no guarantees that this money will be dedicated to these important prevention programs. Moreover, this budget provision is only for one year.
Research shows that eliminating tobacco prevention programs can stall or even reverse the progress that North Carolina has made very quickly thanks to the programs of the HWTF. Unless the state maintains dedicated and recurring funding for tobacco cessation and prevention programs, more North Carolina teens will become addicted to tobacco, and preventable health care costs will rise.
Finally, North Carolina is facing an obesity epidemic with 33.5% of NC children overweight or obese. NC is ranked the 11th most overweight and obese state for children. If we are to improve the health of our children and the physical and economic vitality of our state, we must also invest in obesity prevention.
The NC Alliance for Health looks forward to working with the members of the General Assembly and senior DHHS leadership to ensure a long-term, recurring and stable funding source for tobacco use and obesity prevention programs.