Tobacco suit cash diverted
What do renovations for Benicia's police station, sidewalk upgrades and capital improvements for the Alameda County Medical Center have in common with cigarettes?
Nothing, say Bay Area anti-tobacco groups. But several counties plan to use spoils from the state's lawsuit against tobacco firms to pay for projects that have little to do with reducing smoking.
"We provided the evidence trail that led to the settlement, but are not getting any of the money for prevention programs," said Serena Chen of the American Lung Association of the East Bay.
In November 1998 tobacco companies agreed to compensate states for millions of dollars local agencies paid for smokers' health care costs. The pact set no restrictions on how states and counties could spend the settlement, so cash-strapped local governments plan to fund long-delayed projects, such as debts, street construction and health programs.
Even in counties where most of the settlement will go to health care, little or no money will go to programs that prevent smoking or help smokers kick the habit. That's bitter irony to anti-tobacco groups. Californians will continue to pay billions for smoker's health care costs long after the settlement money dries up, they say.
Now is the time to fund aggressive programs that will stanch smokers' drain on health care resources, says Chen.
"If a company settles a lawsuit, you usually use that money to treat people who were injured," she said. What are counties doing to treat 15-year-olds who are becoming addicted to cigarettes now? she asked.
Smoking prevention is addressed by nonprofit groups that get funding from other sources, some local leaders say. Counties need the settlement money for critical projects.
Tobacco control groups already receive funding though foundations, and federal and state sources -- such as Proposition 99 -- said Solano County Supervisor John Silva. Prop. 99, which took effect in 1989, put a 25 cent per pack tax on cigarettes. Twenty percent of that goes to programs to prevent smoking.
Instead of giving more money to anti-tobacco groups, Silva says, Solano County's share of the settlement should fund new county initiatives and help cities -- such as Benicia.
The programs on the drawing board are far from frivolous, local leaders say. In many cases, tobacco money will go to projects that were postponed because of funding shortages.
Benicia's police station has crumbled into a potentially dangerous state of disrepair, said City Manager-Police Chief Otto Giuliani.
The building is not up to code and is so poorly designed prisoners must use employee bathrooms. Office employees can hear suspects banging and yelling in the holding cells.
"It's abysmal," he said. A new police station would cost at least $6 million, said Giuliani.
The settlement would help pay for bonds to finance a new police station, said Councilman Pierre Bidou, a former city police chief.
Across the state, officials plan to use tobacco money for similar projects.
In Contra Costa, supervisors pledged to use most of the settlement for underfunded health programs, particularly to help indigent people qualify for health insurance.
Alameda County supervisors voted to use it to complete long-delayed capital improvement projects at the county hospital.
Orange County will probably spend some of its share to chip away at the enormous debt it incurred during a 1994 financial crisis that forced it to go bankrupt, says a county spokeswoman.
Nearly $78 million goes to the county's debt service each year instead of to programs that benefit residents, said Diane Thomas, spokeswoman for the Orange County's CEO. The county's priority is to eliminate the debt as soon as possible so it can divert more money into services, she said.
Contra Costa, Alameda and Orange counties have not formally committed funds to reduce smoking.
One mayor's plan has drawn fire from health experts, who say it flies in the face of the original tobacco suit.
The American Medical Association blasted Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan when he proposed that the city use up to $300 million to shield the city from lawsuits stemming from a corruption probe at the police department's Rampart station.
"To begin spending this money without making a firm commitment to addressing the harmful impact tobacco has on California's residents ... is irresponsible," said Richard F. Corlin, speaker of the association's house of delegates.
"There is no proof that settling corruption cases prevents smoking," he said in a statement last month.
Other L.A. city leaders had proposed using settlement money to make streets compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Anti-tobacco groups acknowledge that some money must go to projects that were postponed while counties paid millions of dollars to cover smokers' health care costs.
However, local agencies will continue to shell out money for such health problems if they don't spend more on prevention and cessation efforts, one group says.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that each state and county spend $3 to $8 per resident for a comprehensive tobacco control program, said Thi Pham of the Bay Area Region Tobacco Education Resource.
The money Bay Area counties spend on anti-smoking programs falls far below that standard, said Pham, who has studied the issue.
"In comparison, these (Bay Area counties) numbers are minuscule," she said.
Meanwhile, tobacco control groups' funding from other sources, like Prop. 99, continues to dwindle, said Chen of the lung association.
Ideally, Contra Costa leaders should pour most of the tobacco windfall into smoking prevention and treatment, said Supervisor John Gioia. However, Contra Costa needs it to backfill federal and state money it lost that pays for indigent care, he said.
"It's a Catch-22," said Gioia, who proposed that the state association of counties pledge to use the settlement for health programs. Members rejected his plan, he said.
"Clearly, building jails and police stations is not an appropriate use. At the local level we are dealing with the crumbs off the table. ... We are trying to maintain service at certain levels."
Perhaps in the future, more of the money will help stop smoking, he said.
Silva, the Solano County supervisor, says it's still possible that some local money will help prevent smoking.
During recent community forums about the settlement in Vacaville and Vallejo, residents suggested several worthy city programs, including some tobacco control projects, Silva said. The board will visit Benicia on March 28.
Another Solano supervisor said she worries that too much tobacco money will go to projects that aren't health related.
"I wish we had mandated that it be spent on health services," said Supervisor Barbara Kondylis. The board rejected a proposal to restrict use of the funds, she said.
"I would not like it to be spent on buildings and highways."