Proposed tobacco effort cuts disputed

Health advocates say Ehrlich plan would violate spending requirements

January 22, 2003|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Health advocates alleged yesterday that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed budget could violate state law by cutting in half state spending on anti-smoking programs.

Ehrlich's budget, unveiled Friday, cuts spending on smoking prevention and cessation from $30 million to $15.2 million -- less than the $21 million minimum spending required by a 1999 law raising the state's cigarette tax.

Kari Appler, project director of Smoke Free Maryland, a coalition of public health groups, said the new administration's reductions were not only illegal but shortsighted.

"Tobacco-caused disease is the largest cause of preventable death in this state," Appler said. "These are programs that save lives and save the taxpayers money," she added, because money spent now to reduce smoking will pay off in the long run in reduced costs to treat cancer, heart disease and emphysema.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, said he could not comment immediately on the $21 million spending floor. But he called the tobacco program cuts a regrettable necessity in light of the state's gaping budget deficit.

"The governor has presented an honest and sustainable budget that makes tough choices. This is one," Fawell said.

Fawell noted that Ehrlich's budget increases spending on education and Medicaid, despite "inheriting a $1.8 billion deficit." The money cut from anti-smoking work is shifted to Medicaid, which pays for health care for the poor.

The American Cancer Society, criticizing the anti-smoking reductions and about $8 million cut from cancer research and prevention, called for activists and cancer survivors to rally tomorrow morning against the cuts at the governor's office in Annapolis.

While the shifting budget numbers are hard even for veteran state officials to pin down, former Gov. Parris N. Glendening had proposed spending $30 million on anti-smoking efforts and $40 million on cancer research and prevention each year from the state's tobacco settlement.

In addition to the anti-smoking cuts, Ehrlich's budget proposes reducing the anti-cancer effort to $32.8 million in the year beginning July 1.

Ads to take cuts

Carlessia A. Hussein, director of the Cigarette Restitution Fund Program at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the biggest reductions are for the anti-smoking advertising campaign, with its slogan of "Smoking Stops Here." In addition, a planned telephone "Quitline" to advise smokers on how to quit will be dropped, and an annual survey of smoking among adults and youth will be postponed for a year.

William V. Corr, executive director of the national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, said the spending cuts come as a report from his organization singles out Maryland's anti-smoking programs for praise.

The group's annual rating of anti-tobacco efforts, to be released today, ranks Maryland fourth of the 50 states in the battle against smoking, up from 12th place last year.

"At a time when the tobacco industry is increasing its marketing and promotion to over $180 million a year in Maryland, Governor Ehrlich is proposing to cut Maryland's successful tobacco prevention program in half," Corr said.

Donation at issue

Appler and Corr linked the cuts to contributions Ehrlich has received from the tobacco industry, mostly in the form of a recent donation from cigarette maker Phillip Morris to pay for inaugural parties. The donation is listed in records as at the "Star Spangled Banner" level of $10,000 to $20,000.

"We're disappointed that two days after Phillip Morris was a major contributor to the inaugural festivities, he announced these cuts to tobacco prevention," Appler said.

Fawell said there was no connection.

"The accusation is meaningless," he said. "Those donations kept the inauguration accessible and affordable. ... [Phillip Morris] received nothing but their name in the program."

The attorney general's office last night was not able to offer an opinion on whether the $21 million spending requirement for anti-smoking programs will be binding on the Ehrlich administration.

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