Fine print on budget bill means victory for tobacco lobby State's $3 million public relations war on smoking done in by last-minute restriction.

May 13, 1992|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau

ANNAPOLIS -- It was the state's long-awaited counterattack, a $3 million public relations war against smoking and other behaviors that have helped give Maryland the worst cancer rate in the nation.

Fighting cancer is one of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's top priorities. His administration fought the legislature and the tobacco lobby to get the money for the campaign and won. The state was ready to sign up an ad agency to begin the three-year media blitz.

Then someone read the fine print on the budget bill. The tobacco industry, it seems, had beaten the state health department to the punch. It helped persuade lawmakers to restrict to $250,000 the amount of money for the new anti-cancer media campaign.

Essentially, the budget language forces health officials to switch their money from preventing cancer to treating people who already have it.

The restriction, an amendment tacked on by House and Senate conferees in the frantic final days of the 1992 General Assembly, forced the Board of Public Works to withdraw from consideration two weeks ago a proposed advertising contract with Richardson, Myers and Donofrio. The campaign would have concentrated on the low-income audience that seems most susceptible to many kinds of cancer.

The ban also has prompted health department officials to put their counterattack on indefinite hold, even as Mr. Schaefer is planning an all-day, statewide "Cancer Summit" in Baltimore June 26.

Schaefer administration officials and some legislators blame tobacco lobbyists in general, and Tobacco Institute lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano in particular.

"The lobbyists, Bereano and others, hammered away at this. They worked hard against it," said Robert Eastridge, the state's deputy secretary for public health. "We testified that [the tobacco companies] have such a heavy marketing campaign themselves, we need to spend money on our own program to neutralize it. We thought it was very important to try to get our message out. But we lost that one.

"The whole contract is on hold. We're trying to see if there is a legal way to go ahead with it."

Mr. Bereano said he only reminded legislators that it might be seen as a waste of money to spend millions to urge Marylanders not to smoke at a time the legislature was raising taxes -- including 20 cents a pack on cigarettes -- just to get the budget in balance.

"Advertising about [not] smoking was throwing good money away. They already have warnings on labels, there is public debate and discussions. Even a quarter-million dollars in these very stringent times is wasted money," said Mr. Bereano, the highest-paid lobbyist in Maryland and a major fund-raiser for many legislators.

The legislature ultimately appropriated $5 million (Mr. Schaefer had requested $20 million) for an anti-cancer campaign, but said officials could spend only $250,000 of it on the media.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, one of the three House budget conferees, said of Mr. Bereano: "If I were him, I'd take credit, too. But the facts are, he didn't want a dime spent for this."

"I thought some of the money should be used for the media," Mr. Rawlings said. "But there was universal agreement that, given the seriousness of the problem, that screening or prevention activities, or educational activities, were more important at this time than a major media expenditure."

Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee and is one of three Senate conferees, disputed the notion that tobacco lobbyists influenced the committee.

"Absolutely not," he said. "That came from those who didn't want lucrative contracts going to Image Dynamics [another Baltimore advertising firm] or places like that," he said. "They wanted to spend it on real stuff, like cancer screening."

Because of the $250,000 restriction, Mr. Eastridge said, the health department now intends to spend the $4.7 million balance in local health departments for screening and prevention services for lung, cervical and breast cancer.

Also Mr. Eastridge said the health department was now trying to decide whether it makes more sense for the state to buy prepackaged anti-cancer ads produced by California or other states, or try to produce them at an inexpensive rate here.

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