Stateline.org digs into something I’ve often wondered about but rarely seen reported: the way Americans’ decrease in smoking is hitting state budgets. It’s a fascinating story, and it’s big money:

The payments to states come each year as dictated by the Master Settlement Agreement, a 1998 settlement between 46 states and most of the big tobacco companies, in exchange for states’ promises not to sue the cigarette manufacturers over health claims. States have received $73 billion to date from participating tobacco companies. The payments are calculated each year by a formula that partly relies on the smoking rates in each state. Predicting the payments is never an exact science, but this year’s unwelcome 16 percent drop in funds is thought by many experts as the beginning of a long-term downward trend.

That’s good for public health, but not so hot for states that are already struggling with a host of other economic woes.

There is a lot more to this issue, like the effect of higher taxes on smoking rates and on state revenues, and a big disagreement between big tobacco and the states over whether the companies have “unfairly lost business to other companies—smaller tobacco producers that did not take part in the settlement—as a result of the deal.”

That dispute isn’t expected to be settled until April, 2011, Stateline says. Plenty of time for follow-ups.

—The FT is hosting a high-profile debate about the question du jour, austerity versus stimulus. There are heavy hitters here, including Larry Summers, Kenneth Rogoff, and the FT’s own Martin Wolf.

Today, Niall Ferguson and Brad DeLong are having a pretty tough back-and-forth. The paper says economic sparring in its “Austerity Debate” will continue all week, giving the rest of us a great short course on the subject.

But DeLong worries the deck may be stacked against him. As he said on his blog, “I Do Wish They Were Calling It ‘The Great Stimulus Debate.’”

The New York Times uses another oil spill, this one in Singapore, as a starting point for an interesting debate about the emphasis that gets placed on GDP as a gauge for how economies are performing.

In considering this risk and the increasing evidence of the toll that rapid economic development is already taking on Asia’s environment, economists and other experts in Asia have taken up the call to re-examine the prominence of economic growth as a measure of policy success, particularly the use of gross domestic product.

Columbia’s own Joe Stiglitz got this discussion rolling last year, co-authoring a report that said relying on GDP “had blinded governments to the increasing risks in the world economy since 2004,” as the Times put it.

Instead, he and other economists argue, it’s time to think about other things, too.

“The problem is not G.D.P.,” said Bhanoji Rao, a visiting economics professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “The problem is the culture of consumption.”

Mr. Rao is part of a growing body of economists, largely in academia, who question whether rapid economic growth rates in Asia — from the 10.3 percent expansion in giant-but-poor China to an expected 15 percent growth this year in tiny-but-rich Singapore — are necessarily producing a happier, healthier Asia.
It’s a fascinating topic, and one we’d like to read much more about.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.