Tug of war looms on Hill over use of antitobacco funds
Health care advocates, annoyed that House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran wants to divert money from the state's massive settlement with big tobacco companies, want to recoup some of the cash for antismoking efforts.
Today, they will try to amend a bill, they said. Advocates hope to direct $8 million to preserve and expand a program targeting youth smokers that once won international acclaim.
But they'll be running up against Finneran, who plans to use $115 million of the tobacco settlement money to fund his economic development initiative and is skeptical about tapping the cash for anything else.
''Here we are spending money out of this corpus that took years to build,'' said state Representative Rachel Kaprielian, a Watertown Democrat who filed the amendment. ''Some of it should be used in the spirit for which it was intended: to reverse the tide of tobacco addiction. This is extraordinarily reasonable.''
Finneran's proposed bill, which will be debated by the House today, would make tobacco settlement money available to private-sector businesses that are looking to grow. While Finneran has argued in previous years that the settlement money the state has squirreled away so far -- now $477 million -- should pay for long-term health care needs, he said last week that a portion of the cash should be used to spur economic development instead.
House leaders are skeptical about any major changes to the bill, however, saying the package is tightly designed to give the state the biggest economic benefit for its money.
''The big bang for the state is going to come with economic growth,'' said state Representative Peter J. Larkin, a top member of the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Larkin, a Pittsfield Democrat, said the state will benefit from the increased number of jobs and related income tax revenue that he hopes the Finneran-backed package will bring.
While applauding the results of the Bay State's antismoking programs, Larkin said the state may no longer need as large a tobacco education system, given the growing societal stigma against smoking.
''The momentum of changing attitudes toward tobacco won't turn around,'' Larkin said. ''Is it simply a matter of dollars? No.''
However, advocates of anti-smoking programs contend that the state has already felt the impact of cuts to the program. Illegal cigarette sales to minors have tripled in less than a year, according to a study by the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards.
''This is a problem that escalates immediately if we don't continue to address it,'' said Lori Fresina, a campaign manager for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Senate leaders, who will take up the bill in the fall, have indicated they may seek to change the funding mechanism envisioned in Finneran's measure, or make other substantial changes. Governor Mitt Romney has not said whether he thinks spurring economic development with tobacco settlement money is appropriate, saying he will review any measure after it reaches his desk.
Trying to find a compromise, Senate Health Care Committee Chairman Richard T. Moore yesterday proposed having the state share in any profits earned by firms that benefit from state grants and subsidized loans. Those profits could go toward tobacco control or other health care needs funded by the state, he said.
''Some of these things are going to take off and become very successful,'' said Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat. ''Why shouldn't the state take some portion of the revenue?''
In its heyday of the mid- to late-1990s, Massachusetts' anti-smoking effort included a comprehensive system of local treatment and counseling programs, as well as a robust statewide advertising campaign and an enforcement campaign designed to keep minors from buying cigarettes.
By most accounts, it worked, winning plaudits from the American Cancer Society and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Cigarette consumption in Massachusetts dropped 36 percent from 1992 to 2000, more than twice the national average, according to state figures.
After Massachusetts joined a national legal settlement with tobacco companies in 1998, putting the state in line to receive an estimated $7.6 billion over 25 years, state leaders at first expanded antismoking programs while simultaneously putting most of the money away for future health care needs. But as the economy has turned, the state has put more settlement money toward general health care programs, while taking away most of the money that was directed against smoking. In the fiscal year that started July 1, the Legislature set aside $2.5 million for tobacco control, and Romney has sought to reduce that amount by $835,000. At its height, in 2000, the state spent $54.2 million on tobacco control.