Up In Smoke: NY Tobacco Control Program Gets Funding Slash

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    In the last three years, New York's once heralded anti-smoking program has been cut three times by a total of 30 percent and as its TV spots, quitters' help line and free nicotine patch programs were scaled back, 105,000 adults started smoking who otherwise might not have.

    Anti-smoking advocate Russ Sciandra notes the state Tobacco Control Program has been cut far deeper and more often than most areas, and wonders why.

    The answers say much about Albany and how its forces have torn at the Tobacco Control Program, one of the quiet casualties of the state's fiscal crisis.

    Sciandra said the anti-smoking program faces a formidable obstacle for any cause in Albany: A lack of a shrill constituency that politicians don't dare ignore.

    "We don't have clients," said Sciandra, director of the Center for a Tobacco Free New York. "Politically, it doesn't hurt anyone."

    All he has is facts: 100,000 more smokers means 25,000 more premature deaths and $1 billion in added cost to the state in government-subsidized health care for the poor and elderly.

    "Until people quit, they hate us. And once they do, they don't need us," Sciandra said.

    Elections records give some bite to what he considers another obvious factor.

    Back in October of 2008, less than a week before the legislative elections would determine which party controlled the Senate, Philip Morris parent Altria Group Inc. contributed $30,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee when they needed it most. It was the second $30,000 contribution to the committee that year, and was followed by a $50,000 donation in January, when Democrats opened the Senate session in the majority.

    It's all legal, just like the $125,000 Altria contributed to the Senate Republican campaign when Republicans controlled the Senate during the 2006-07 session and the $50,000 it gave the GOP committee in November 2008, days after some dissident Democrats threatened to switch the majority back to the GOP.

    "There's nothing there," agreed Altria's David Sutton. "It's something we've done for a number of years ... we simply do not lobby on control issues at all." Instead, Altria's was dedicated to fighting more cigarette taxes, trying to get Albany to end its delays in collecting hundreds of millions in taxes on cigarettes sold by Indian tribes, and other issues including fighting for positive programs for youths.

    "The government policy side and political side operate completely independent of one another," said Eric Blankenbaker, spokesman for the Senate Democratic campaign. "There is no connection."

    Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group chuckled at that.

    "It reminds me of the scene in 'Casablanca' when the French police chief is arguing that he's 'shocked' there is gambling as he gets his winnings," Horner said. "In my opinion, they wouldn't be giving that money to the Democratic Senate unless they felt they were getting something in return."

    The result is that a program that was once a top priority of Republican and Democratic governors is another casualty of the fiscal crisis in which the state can no longer sustain levels of spending as tax revenues plummet. Even protected programs such as school and hospital aid face some cuts. Schools for example, are fighting a 5 percent reduction.

    The latest cut to the smoking program is proposed for $5 million in the 2010-11 state budget, now a month late and under negotiation.

    "Do we like it? Of course not," said Claudia Hutton, spokeswoman for the state Health Department. "But I don't know of any program in the Health Department that is an entitlement that isn't taking a whack."

    Some of the cuts were pushed by the Legislature, as it sought a deficit reduction program in December that spared school aid and some other funding.

    Hutton doesn't dispute Sciandra's trends or the cuts so far. She said whenever tobacco is taxed more, or whenever more TV ads and programs like free nicotine patches are offered, smoking declines including smokers who cut back. Lift those even briefly, and smoking increases.

    "You can see this kind of swing that quickly," Hutton said. "Ideally, we would never have a period without tobacco advertising and not one minute when the help line isn't open."