At the December meeting of the Arkansas Tobacco Settlement Commission, Gov. Asa Hutchinson made a surprise appearance. He wanted to thank commissioners for their help in providing home care and services to about 500 people with developmental disabilities.

They were moved off a waiting list of about 3,000 families who wanted more extensive home care that would allow the person with a disability to move out of an institution. That was made possible because earlier this year the legislature approved Act 50 to allocate about $8.7 million in state funds. That was matched by about $20 million in federal funds.

The state share of the funding came from an account under the authority of the Tobacco Settlement Commission, which is why the governor made it a point to thank commissioners.

The legislature created the Tobacco Settlement Commission and the programs it administers in 2000, after Arkansas and numerous other states settled a lawsuit against major tobacco companies. Arkansas policy makers decided to use all of the state’s share of the settlement to pay for health-related programs, as well as anti-smoking efforts.

The tobacco money paid for health education classes for more than 77,000 Arkansans through local health centers. It also paid for continuing education for more than 11,000 professionals in the health care field.

Almost 25,000 people in low-income areas received health screenings. Revenue from the legal settlement paid for 225 research projects last year at the five institutions designated to receive funding from the 2000 tobacco settlement act. They are Children’s Hospital, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas State University, University of Arkansas and the Division of Agriculture of the University of Arkansas.

Other recipients of settlement revenue are the Fay Boozman College of Public Health, the Arkansas Aging Initiative, the Arkansas Minority Health Initiative and branches of UAMS in Helena, Lake Village and West Memphis.

Arkansas ranks near the bottom in national rankings that measure rates of smoking and obesity, therefore the state is high in the rankings of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and preventable illnesses.

In measures of overall healthiness, we are at similar levels with Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia.

Given the high cost of health care, the commission has focused on certain projects and programs so that the money it spends will have the greatest impact. “It is unreasonable to expect that a few million dollars of tobacco funding to resolve all problems,” the 2016 report concluded.

Therefore, money is spent where it can leverage federal matching dollars, and in education programs that hopefully “foster a culture of health” in populations that traditionally make poor choices in regards to diet, smoking, drinking and exercise.

According to last year’s financial report, the commission had distributed more than $44.6 million to health programs. The report was prepared by the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. When it was presented earlier this year, members of the commission said that they liked its clearness and readability. Previous reports by a private non-profit organization, and one commissioner commented that its report had been hard to read.

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