WASHINGTON – Maryland is one of only four states that meet federal guidelines for spending on programs to stop or prevent smoking, according to a report released Wednesday by a coalition of health groups.
But those funds would be almost cut in half under Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s fiscal 2004 budget as the state struggles to close a $1.7 billion shortfall. Health advocates call the cuts short-sighted, but administration officials say they have little choice.
“The state is broke,” said Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for the governor. Maryland is in “in a tough fiscal crunch, and tough choices had to be made,” she said.
Maryland currently spends $30 million on anti-tobacco programs, barely within Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that suggest the state should spend between $30.3 million and $78.6 million a year.
Ehrlich’s budget would cut state funding of tobacco cessation and prevention programs to $15.2 million for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Health advocates said they fear cuts like Maryland’s could happen nationally, as other states struggle to close budget gaps.
“We expect there to be continued pressure, because many states have budget deficits, to use their tobacco revenues to solve their deficit problems,” said Bill Corr, vice president for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
But Corr said cutting prevention measures “saves a little bit of money in this fiscal year, but it just costs you a lot more later” in health care costs.
Maryland garners about $444 million a year in tobacco taxes and in payments from the national settlement of a lawsuit by the states against tobacco companies, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The current $30 million budget is a sharp increase from the last fiscal year, when a dispute over attorneys’ fees held tobacco program spending to about $20 million.
In the current fiscal year, about $14 million is going to local health campaigns and another $10 million is going to Smoking Stops Here, the media campaign launched in July 2002, said Carlessia Hussein, executive director of the state’s Cigarette Restitution Fund Program.
But those programs would both be scaled back under Ehrlich’s budget, and some hoped-for additions would be scrapped entirely, like the creation of a “quit line,” a toll-free number that smokers could call to get immediate advice about how to quit smoking.
The report on states’ spending was released by the Campaign for Tobacco- Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and the SmokeLess States National Tobacco Policy Initiative.
The report showed an overall decrease in anti-tobacco spending by states, leading the American Cancer Society’s Michael Schwartzberg to warn that, “Cancer cuts kill.”
Ehrlich’s budget still must be approved by the General Assembly, but lawmakers can only cut or shift funds in the governor’s budget, they cannot add to it.
“Everything is in flux at this point, and a lot of it depends on whether or not they can find the money” to make up the shortfall, said Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery. “I suspect they (administration officials) are looking for every bit of money they can because they don’t want to raise taxes.”
Ruben, who sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee, would not predict whether the proposed cuts would hold, but agreed with advocates that shifting money away from prevention could problematic in the future.
The state will “pay double” in the long term, she said. “There is no free lunch.”