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Recent Missouri Editorials

February 12, 2019

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 7

Missouri law should reflect today’s medical and societal advances on HIV

Under current Missouri law, a person who has tested positive for HIV can face serious legal consequences for actions as medically harmless as spitting. The statutes were written decades ago, before medical science caught up with the disease. That they’re still on the books can subject HIV patients to additional victimization from overzealous prosecutors.

A new legislative push to bring Missouri’s HIV-related sentencing laws into the 21st century deserves careful consideration.

Anyone not around or not old enough to follow the news in the early 1980s might not be able to appreciate the panic that AIDS created in America when reports first surfaced of a mysterious disease that was attacking the autoimmune systems of, primarily, young gay men and intravenous drug users. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Fear was joined by prejudice in the eyes of much of the public. For years, HIV was widely regarded as untreatable — and generally fatal. By 1993, it was the leading cause of death among young adults in major U.S. cities.

In Missouri, as elsewhere, political systems tried to respond to a deadly threat that was still little understood. Missouri law took a punitive approach, setting long prison terms — life, in some cases — for crimes related to exposing others to HIV, at a time when people still believed spitting on someone could be one method of exposure. (It isn’t.)

Today, though HIV/AIDS is still potentially fatal, it is more commonly a treatable condition. With treatment, sufferers can lead normal lives, with few symptoms and vastly reduced chances of transmission. Treatments are improving all the time. Statistics make clear that criminalizing this illness doesn’t help prevent it but does scare some possible victims into avoiding getting tested.

Today, the ravages of this disease have declined and societal attitudes have become more rational. But Missouri law hasn’t. As the Post-Dispatch’s Lexi Churchill reports, state lawmakers this week heard testimony on legislation designed to change that.

Among the changes suggested in two measures would be a dramatic reduction in penalties for inadvertently exposing partners to HIV. The measures would make the use of condoms and medications that reduce transmission affirmative defenses; incredibly, they currently aren’t. Further, prosecutors would have to consider whether a person posed a substantial risk of transmission as determined by scientific evidence, which is much more solid today than it was in the 1980s.

In November 1987, when the Legislature was considering punitive laws like those on the books today, this newspaper argued that “AIDS is a public-health problem, not one that should be criminalized.” Those words still ring true.

Today, medical science and facts must be allowed to prevail over legislation based on panic and irrationality. With the disease largely under control in the U.S., Missouri’s HIV/AIDS laws should be updated to reflect that reality.

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The St. Joseph News-Press, Feb. 11

Missouri squandered tobacco money

At more than $2.7 billion, Missouri’s total payout from a landmark tobacco settlement almost boggles the mind.

Twenty years later, something else is even harder to grasp. States managed to squander much of the money that was supposed to go toward tobacco prevention, with Missouri emerging as one of the worst culprits.

A new report shows that Missouri is spending $48,500 on tobacco prevention efforts in 2019, out of total state tobacco revenue of $258.9 million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the state fell more than $70 million short on the recommended target to fund tobacco prevention.

You can quibble about that target, but there’s no question that $48,500 is a drop in the bucket compared to $364.9 million that tobacco companies spend on marketing in the state. That’s not even counting the free advertising that depicts tobacco smokers as cool on TV and movies.

No wonder 20 percent of Missouri adults still smoke and 9.2 percent of high school students have taken up the habit. Then there’s the growing number of students who have turned to vaping, despite concerns this habit could lead to increased smoking of combustible cigarettes.

All this didn’t seem possible in 1998, following a landmark settlement after tobacco companies admitted to covering up the health dangers from smoking. Last year, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids decried a lack of funding for tobacco-prevention efforts in states that collect $27.3 billion in revenue from both cigarette taxes and settlement payments. Only 2.4 percent of that money goes to prevention efforts.

The anti-tobacco organization, which ranked Missouri as 48th in tobacco-prevention funding, issued a call for more money directed toward programs to keep teenagers from smoking or to help adults quit the habit.

“On the 20th anniversary of the tobacco settlement, it is time for a renewed national commitment to finish the fight against tobacco and eliminate the death and disease it causes,” the organization said in a statement.

These days, no one seems to bat an eye if the government doesn’t spend its money wisely. Here’s the rub. This tobacco settlement funding fell into the laps of Missouri and other states, presenting an opportunity to address an issue that has a huge impact on health-care spending.

The stakes are high, with 31 percent of cancer deaths in Missouri attributed to smoking. With the settlement, the state could have taken steps to help prevent these deaths without using revenue from sales or income taxes.

It’s almost too easy to say that it went up in smoke, but that’s what happened.

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The Jefferson City News-Tribune, Feb. 9

Parson’s plan for adult tuition grants has merit

When it comes to education funding in Missouri, there are a lot of outstretched hands.

Gov. Mike Parson wants to create one more slice of the pie, this one to go toward scholarships for adults studying in high-demand fields.

On Jan. 31, a story by the Associated Press said the governor’s plan, one of his priorities this session, has faced early pushback from Democrats and Republicans.

The plan would fund $22 million in “Fast-Track” workforce grants to cover tuition for adults older than 25 who have household adjusted gross incomes of less than $80,000. The grants could be used only for those pursuing degrees, certificates or credentials in careers in high need of trained workers, the AP reported.

The grants could serve 16,000 people a year.

One lawmaker asked why the state doesn’t simply put more funding into existing state scholarships. Another questioned which specific academic programs would be covered. Still another wondered why the state is subsidizing the training costs, rather than employers.

We believe the plan, as well as the scrutiny of the plan, has merit.

The plan itself appears that it would serve a good purpose, and is one that employers are less-likely to fill these days. Many are hesitant to spend much on training employees, because those workers jump from job to job more than previously.

But is this the best use of the money? If so, the details of the bill still need to be scrutinized. Should age 25 be the cutoff to receive grants? Should students have to maintain a 2.5 GPA? What are the “high-demand” fields that should be included?

We hope lawmakers in both chambers give the governor’s proposal a full debate.

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