A killer worth fighting

February 03, 2005

RESEARCHERS AT the University of Maryland's Greenebaum Cancer Center recently began testing a vaccine to prevent prostate cancer from recurring in men. It could prove an extraordinary development in the long-term fight against the disease. Cancer is the No. 1 killer of American adults under age 85, and prostate cancer is its most common form in men. Credit for this potential breakthrough goes to some dedicated scientists - and to a critical source of money for their mission, the CRF.

That's the Cigarette Restitution Fund. It was created in 1999, and it's financed entirely by the money Maryland received from the national tobacco settlement a half-decade ago. Unlike most states, where tobacco settlement money got sucked into general spending, the General Assembly chose to create this special fund. Its mission is to discourage people from smoking and fight cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. The CRF has become a key source of support for cancer research at both the University of Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University.

But that's about to change.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has proposed drastically reducing the funding for cancer-related initiatives in next year's state budget. The biggest cutback - about $7.7 million - would come from Baltimore's research hospitals. The University of Maryland's appropriation for research into cancer and other tobacco-related diseases would drop from $13 million to just $6.45 million. And it could get worse. Mr. Ehrlich is asking the General Assembly to permanently reduce CRF's yearly payments to smoking cessation and prevention programs by $11 million. If legislators refuse, he'll just take more money out of cancer funding.

Why cut cancer research? Mr. Ehrlich wants to use CRF money to underwrite Medicaid. But while Medicaid certainly needs the support, it shouldn't come at the expense of such an important mission. The relatively paltry sum Maryland spends on research provides crucial seed money to places such as Greenebaum and Hopkins' Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. It's allowed them to build labs and recruit top scientists over the past five years. In turn, these institutions have been able to obtain tens of millions of dollars more in private and federal support.

Unless Mr. Ehrlich reverses course, the consequences will be dire. Greenebaum could lose half its research staff. Other forms of funding will dry up. And fewer research projects like the prostate cancer vaccine will be undertaken.

That's unacceptable. Generations of Marylanders have been harmed by tobacco, and generations more could be. The state's support for cancer research should not waiver - certainly not for the sake of a short-term budget fix.

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