Tobacco money should go to medical research

November 25, 1998|By Barry Rascovar

HOW SHOULD Maryland spend roughly $150 million a year in blood money from the tobacco industry? That could become a bitterly divisive issue between now and early April, when the legislature gives final approval to the governor's budget.

Every interest group will be lobbying for a slice of this Christmas gift from cigarette makers. Every legislator and the governor will have ideas on how to dispose of the money.

Republicans already are talking about -- what else? -- tax cuts. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is talking about using the money to reduce class sizes, renovate schools and give free health care to children.

Both miss the point of this pot of cash being handed to the state. It is money paid to compensate for the incredible sums taxpayers put out over the decades to tend to Marylanders with tobacco-related illnesses.

This is the cigarette makers' way of making amends -- and saving their business. Throwing that money into tax cuts or smaller class sizes would be a mistake.

Prevention efforts

The bulk of these annual payments should be aimed at tobacco-related problems. Smoking-prevention efforts, especially among teens, should be a major focus. So should medical research.

"Prevent cancer, find cures" should be the state's battle cry. In 1996, 23,000 Marylanders learned they had some type of cancer. Nearly half of them died from the disease -- almost 200 every week.

And nearly half of the deaths were related to tobacco use.

Maryland's cancer-mortality rate is the sixth highest in the nation. That is unacceptable in such a well-educated and affluent state.

By 2000, cancer costs will absorb $100 of every $500 a family spends in health insurance. A staggering 40 percent of all Americans will be get cancer. And since cancer generally is a disease of older people, these figures will soar as the baby boom generation approaches retirement.

Class sizes? Tax cuts? Let's get our priorities straight.

Cancer research

If lawmakers and the governor want to make a difference in Maryland, they will zero in not only on prevention programs, but also on a greatly enhanced cancer research effort at this state's two prestigious medical institutions -- Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Imagine the impact if state government boosted research at these two great facilities by $50 million or $100 million a year.

Texas already gives $24 million a year to the M.D. Anderson Center in Houston. Now is Maryland's chance to step to the fore.

Putting this money into medical research would have spinoff benefits, too. It would recycle this cash into the local economy. It would create thousands of jobs in the medical service and research industries. It would turn Maryland into even more of a hotbed for medical biotech companies clamoring to locate near Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

There is no more beneficial growth industry for Maryland citizens than medical research. The results of this work could save thousands of lives. Cancer should not be a death sentence. Especially cancer linked to smoking.

University hospital officials want to create a statewide education and research network with community hospitals and cancer specialists. The goal: Early and accurate detection of cancers and appropriate treatment.

What better way to spend Big Tobacco's money than on a program like that?

Sharply reducing the number of tobacco-related illnesses in Maryland would save taxpayers a bundle in unnecessary medical expenses. And dramatically improving a Marylander's chances of surviving a cancer diagnosis would add immeasurably to this region's quality of life.

Underwriting cancer-research programs at the two major state medical centers would be more than just a good deed by elected leaders in Annapolis. It would be the most responsible way to handle the ill-gotten gains of tobacco companies that is about to be deposited into the state's treasury.

Playing politics with this huge sum of money won't sit well with Marylanders. It would be the quickest way for the newly elected governor and legislature to lose whatever good will they accumulated on Election Day.

Barry Rascovar, deputy editorial page editor, is the author of "The Great Game of Maryland Politics."

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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