CNN Bias on Tobacco Debate

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was one of the biggest legal battles in history, big tobacco against just about every state in the nation.

And these two men were on opposite sides. Haley Barbour, a Republican operative, was lobbying Congress for the tobacco companies. Mike Moore, then Mississippi’s Democratic attorney general, was leading the nation’s attorneys general in the fight against big tobacco.

In the end, Moore won. And the tobacco companies lost. Cigarette makers agreed to pay the states a total of $246 billion over 25 years, just part of the cost of treating people for tobacco-related illnesses.

MIKE MOORE, FORMER MISSISSIPPI ATTORNEY GENERAL: So, what we thought is, could we recover some money to try to help repay that cost, but also take a portion of the money and prevent young people from ever smoking in the first place?

GRIFFIN: But, instead of spending the money on preventing and treating tobacco addiction, most states, according to the nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, spent it on regular bills, dumping the money year after year into their general funds. Some states even used the money for pet projects, sprinklers for a golf course in New York, college scholarships in Michigan, a horse park in North Carolina.

One state that, year after year, has used some of the money to fight tobacco use was Mississippi. But now that former tobacco lobbyist is Mississippi’s governor, and he wants to change how his state spends its tobacco money.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, raise your hand if you know what the word addicted means.

GRIFFIN: And that would end this award winning anti-smoking program.

Next year, the fourth-grade students at Jackson, Mississippi’s, Van Winkle Elementary School most likely will not get this lesson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because I go all over the state of Mississippi, talking to kids just like you all about all the bad stuff that tobacco can do to you.

GRIFFIN: School programs like this, combined with TV and print ads, have helped reduce teen smoking in this state by 40 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Raise your hand if you think the answer is “A.”

GRIFFIN: Great news, right? Remember the bad news.

SANDRA SHELSON, PARTNERSHIP FOR A HEALTHY TOMORROW (ph): When the end of this school year comes, I don’t know that we’ll be able to do any of this.

GRIFFIN: Not because the tobacco money has run out. In fact, Mississippi keeps getting more, about $180 million this year from the settlement and tobacco taxes, including $20 million the courts set aside for the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, the independent agency that has run the state’s anti-smoking program.

But the governor has another plan. Haley Barbour says the state should control the tobacco money, not an independent agency. And he sued to get that $20 million back.

The partnership, he said in a statement last year, “has done some good work, but Mississippi’s taxpayers have not gotten their money’s worth.”

(on camera) So what does Governor Haley Barbour want to do to stop kids in Mississippi from smoking? We came here to the capitol in Jackson to find out.

But do you know a member of his staff told us the governor would never be able to talk to CNN about anti-smoking initiatives, no matter when we came to Mississippi.

(voice-over) We’ve been trying now for two months.

MIKE MOORE, FORMER MISSISSIPPI ATTORNEY GENERAL: It’s really short-sightedness to turn off a program with such great success.

GRIFFIN: Mike Moore, the former Democratic attorney general, who launched the big tobacco suit, is now the partnership’s chairman. Some say it all boils down to politics between the Republican governor and his longtime Democratic rival.

In a statement last year, the governor accused the partnership of misusing money for what he called political purposes. He pointed to $2.9 million of tobacco money spent on a mentoring program in Mississippi’s lowest performing schools.

The program was developed by the all Democratic Congressional Black Caucus. Governor Barbour called that politicizing public health.

The partnership denies any money was misspent. It does say the governor’s lawsuit is putting it out of business, because that $20 million is tied up in court.

Its anti-smoking commercials have stopped running, billboards have been taken down and by next year, the school programs will end.

The governor has proposed his own plan: $5 million to the University of Mississippi’s Cancer Research Institute, $5 million to state drug enforcement agents, $5 million to hire more school nurses who implement anti-smoking programs and just $5 million specifically to fight smoking for an anti-tobacco ad campaign targeting children.

“The health of Minnesota’s kids is at risk for many factors,” Barbour said in a statement, “whether it is cigarette smoking or exposure to illegal drugs.”

Republicans in the state legislature agree Mississippi should control all Mississippi’s tobacco money, but Senate leaders say the state still needs a focused anti-smoking campaign.

ALAN NUNNELEE, MISSISSIPPI STATE SENATE: The Senate’s position is that we want to put this in the Department of Health. We want to ask them to be the lead agency, to be responsible and accountable for reducing smoking in the state.

The governor was going to fragment that through three or four different state agencies. I feel that you really do need to put one agency in charge.

GRIFFIN: The governor hasn’t said whether he’ll go along with the Senate plan or a competing House proposal.

While they all tangle over how to spend the tobacco money, the program that has been so effective in stopping smoking is shutting down.

MOORE: That was down in Florida.

GRIFFIN: The original dragon slayer of big tobacco is wondering where the billions of dollars in his record settlement has gone.

MOORE: Most states have taken their money, forgot about what the fight was about, and spent it on highways or a bad deficit that they might have or something else.

MATT MYERS, CAMPAIGN FOR TOBACCO FREE KIDS: It’s a stung failure on the part of the state.

GRIFFIN: Last year, the National Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids estimated less than 2.7 percent of the tobacco money was actually used fighting tobacco addiction. The group’s president says it’s no coincidence an eight-year trend has ended.

MYERS: We’re no longer seeing a decline in youth smoking rates.

MOORE: Everywhere in this country where they’ve tried a comprehensive tobacco prevention program, it has worked and worked very, very well. So why do we stop doing things that work?

GRIFFIN: Back in Mississippi, the state with the fourth highest smoking death rate has a decision to make about next year’s fourth grade class. When school lets out, will the youngsters remember not to smoke or will the tobacco companies get the last word?

Drew Griffin, CNN, Jackson, Mississippi.