Smoking critics irked as D.C. diverts tobacco funds

Anti-smoking activists want the D.C. Council to devote new funding for cessation programs after the body voted to hike the cigarette tax and raid the tobacco settlement fund but dedicate the associated revenue to the budget shortfall.

At-large Councilman David Catania, chairman of the health committee, served up the tobacco fund during last week’s closed-door deficit sessions. When members threatened to raise property and other taxes rather than cut more from the budget, Catania offered additional dollars from the settlement fund to bridge the gap.

The pot was ultimately drained of nearly $27 million.

“No one likes having to use part of these proceeds for gap-closing measures, but the alternative was worse, and that’s why we recommended that we use a portion, not all,” Catania said Thursday. “There still will be substantial tobacco funds held in reserves for future activities.”

The council also backed a cigarette tax increase, from $2 to $2.50 per pack. The associated revenue, expected to be $9.7 million in 2010, will flow to the general fund.

With the economy in crisis and jurisdictions in search of every extra penny, smoking critics are sounding the alarm about steering tobacco money away from health issues.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, for example, is warning that the DC Tobacco Free Families prevention and cessation program, first funded three years ago with settlement dollars, will be bankrupt Sept. 30 without additional support.

“With the cigarette tax hike, we know it’s going to persuade more people to want to quit, so they need to have the programs to help people follow through on that,” said Peter Fisher, the campaign’s vice president for state issues.

The American Lung Association of D.C., meanwhile, is calling for an additional 25-cent cigarette tax increase to create a dedicated funding stream for tobacco prevention and control.

This is not the first time D.C. has redirected its tobacco money. The city converted settlement fund payments into $521 million in bonds in 2001 and used the entire balance to pay off debt.

“We blew it the last time,Ó Catania said in October 2007.

When the District returned to the bond market in 2006, using the tobacco money to borrow an additional $248 million, it pledged to invest all of that money in cancer and chronic disease prevention, smoking cessation, primary care upgrades, and pediatric emergency care expansion.

Of the $248 million, a balance of $171 million remains as of Thursday.

© Copyright: Washingtonexaminer

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