Activists Upset Over Proposed Use Of Tobacco Money
HARTFORD, Conn. -- Anti-smoking groups are fuming over Gov. John G. Rowland's proposal to use more money from the settlement of lawsuits against the tobacco industry to help balance Connecticut's budget.
With the state facing a projected deficit as high as $200 million, Rowland has proposed taking another $41 million out of the tobacco settlement trust fund to help balance the books.
"Completely outrageous," said Ellen Dornelas, a psychologist who directs Hartford Hospital's smoking cessation program and co-chairs MATCH, or Mobilize Against Tobacco for Children's Health.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose lawsuit against five major tobacco companies four years ago led to the settlement, called the governor's proposal "disheartening and discouraging."
According to the General Assembly's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the state will have received more than $397 million from the tobacco industry by the end of the fiscal year in June. Payments began in 1999.
Of that money, $336 million has been pumped directly into the general fund to support the overall state budget. Just $5 million was directly allocated to fight smoking, with another $57 million designated for a Tobacco and Health Trust Fund. Interest from the fund is to be used for anti-smoking programs.
In the past few months, the trust fund has dwindled to $53 million, as money was redirected for prescription-drug subsidies and other purposes, officials said. On Friday, Rowland proposed that an additional $41 million be removed from the fund, leaving it with a balance of just $12 million.
The governor's proposal, coupled with past spending decisions by the administration and the legislature, "clearly sends the message that public health is not at the top of their priority list," said Dornelas, who also serves as a trustee for the health care fund.
"We ought to be outraged and embarrassed that Connecticut has been virtually dead last in its commitment to fighting tobacco with Big Tobacco's funds," Blumenthal said.
The average age when children begin smoking in Connecticut is 11, according to MATCH research. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the tobacco industry spends up to $60 million a year to market its products in Connecticut alone.
The $41 million transfer is just part of a $110 million budget-cutting plan offered by Rowland last week.
Budget director Marc Ryan said the cuts are necessary because of the economic downturn and the aftereffects of Sept. 11. All but about $21 million of the proposed cuts require legislative approval.
Lawmakers are not expected to review the budget plan until after the 2002 legislative session begins Feb. 6.