A coalition of health groups objects to Gov. James S. Gilmore III's proposal to spend much of Virginia's share of the national tobacco settlement on transportation, saying it would squander a historic opportunity to curb smoking and related ailments.
The groups say the money, expected to total $1.6 billion over 25 years, could help prevent the next generation from taking up smoking. The cash also might spur new research into curing diseases caused by smoking, the groups say, and soften the budgetary drain caused by treating sick smokers.
The national settlement grew out of state lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in reimbursement for Medicaid costs caused by tobacco-related illness.
Joining forces to criticize Gilmore's plan are the Medical Society of Virginia, which represents 7,000 physicians, and the Virginia chapters of the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. All have sent letters of protest to the governor in the last two weeks.
The health groups vowed to take their fight to the legislative session that begins in January.
The tobacco settlement "wasn't meant as a money-grab by the states," said Bill Cimino, a spokesman for the Medical Society of Virginia. "It was meant to address smoking-related issues."
Similar battles have erupted nationwide as states consider spending the billions of dollars expected from the settlement on popular causes such as school computers or flood control.
"What's happening in most states across the country is it's going . . . to whatever the political hot button of the moment is," said Joy Bechtold, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society.
Anti-smoking efforts are a particularly tough sell in a state where tobacco is the number one cash crop and cigarette companies are both major private employers and leading political givers.
Virginia's share of the national tobacco settlement is expected to total $4 billion over 25 years, but tobacco companies would have to pay less if sales of cigarettes drop. Gilmore (R) and the legislature approved a plan in February setting aside half the state's settlement money for assistance to tobacco-growing communities and 10 percent for programs to battle youth smoking.
The remaining 40 percent, about $1.6 billion, was not allocated. But on Tuesday, Gilmore said the settlement payments should be exchanged for a lump-sum payment of about $1 billion, a crucial piece of his $2.5 billion plan to ease traffic congestion around the state. Democrats made a similar proposal three weeks earlier.
That leaves the health groups with few friends for next year's General Assembly session. Transportation has emerged as the key issue in several legislative races.
Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner said the 10 percent of tobacco settlement money already designated for fighting youth smoking will mean $400 million for anti-tobacco efforts.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars are going to this," Miner said. "Under [the governor's] proposal, both sides win."
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), the state Democratic Party chairman, said both transportation and anti-smoking efforts need funding.
"It's a matter of priorities," Plum said. "I'm comfortable over a period of time, we'll be able to address the health issues, as well."