Wrong way to spend tobacco settlement

House bill: General Assembly should reject playing politics with $4.2 billion from cigarette makers.

March 23, 2000

PORK-BARREL politics is driving powerful House legislators to turn the governor's anti-cancer and smoking-cessation crusade into a grab-bag for local special interests eager for a piece of the state's $4.2 billion tobacco settlement.

That would be a big mistake. It would weaken a well-conceived plan to dedicate most tobacco money to fighting cancer and reducing teen smoking.

Instead of a focused drive to curb Maryland's high cancer rate, the legislature would be playing politics with the tobacco money. The House bill, for instance, tosses money to unnamed hospitals in the Washington suburbs and one in Baltimore that appears to be Sinai Hospital.

It would spend money on fighting heart and lung diseases that have nothing to do with tobacco-smoking.

It would subsidize prescription drug payments for senior citizens in rural counties.

And it would give the legislature another chance to add to its pork menu when the bill expires in three years.

This is a bad piece of legislation. Even top House leaders cringe at what Del. Howard P. Rawlings of Baltimore has done with this bill.

Far more preferable is a Senate bill hammered out by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen of Montgomery County that sticks to the governor's initial plan to target the tobacco money.

The Senate bill, for instance, channels $30 million a year through local health officers for anti-cancer efforts that are approved by an oversight board. There is little, if any, pork, in the Senate version.

The billions that will flow to Maryland from the tobacco companies should be spent to undo the damage done by cigarette smoking. We should use this money to ease smoking's addictive hold on Marylanders.

But that won't happen if the barons of pork prevail. Let's target this "blood money" from Big Tobacco to stamp out some of the insidious diseases linked to smoking and cut the number of teens who get hooked on this unhealthy -- and dangerous -- habit.

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