A coalition of doctors, health groups and drug companies vowed today to fight Gov. James S. Gilmore III's plan to use much of Virginia's share of the national tobacco settlement to build roads instead of fighting smoking and related health problems.
The coalition, called "Spend Tobacco $$$ On People," said it would lobby the General Assembly in the coming session in hopes of diverting at least some of the $1.6 billion slated for Gilmore's transportation plan into medical research or other health care needs.
"That's what the battle was all about, not spending money on roads," said David Ellington, of the Virginia Academy of Family Physicians, one of the coalition's 20 members.
The message won sympathy today from some lawmakers, but they say that chances of blocking or altering Gilmore's plan are slim because leaders of both parties have embraced the idea of using the settlement money for transportation.
"I personally feel that an awful lot of this settlement ought to be used for health care," said Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester), a pharmacist. But he added, "The governor's plan is very popular, so it would be an uphill battle."
Virginia is scheduled to get up to $4 billion in the next 25 years from the national settlement, though that amount would decrease if cigarette sales dropped or if tobacco companies go bankrupt. Some lawmakers say the federal lawsuit against the tobacco companies has undermined the settlement with the states.
Half of the Virginia settlement money is slated to help tobacco growers and their communities, and 10 percent is slated to fight youth smoking under an agreement between Gilmore and the General Assembly earlier this year.
At play is the remaing 40 percent of the settlement, as much as $1.6 billion over the next 25 years. During the recent election season, both Gilmore (R) and Democratic leaders proposed using that money to ease traffic in Northern Virginia and elsewhere in the state.
Gilmore's plan would sell the state's proceeds from the settlement to get an immediate payment of $600 million for transportation. Other funding sources raise the value of his package to more than $2 billion.
State Finance Secretary Ronald L. Tillett said the governor's plan is not threatened by a legal attack on the tobacco companies. And he noted that the existing deal would direct $400 million to preventing youth smoking over the next 25 years. "This is a tremendous amount of money," he said.
The coalition members today disagreed. The group includes the Medical Society of Virginia, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, three drug companies and others.
The lung association released a poll it had commissioned showing that 56 percent of Virginians favor using the remaining 40 percent of the tobacco settlement money for "improving health." Funding transportation needs alone got 8 percent in the poll.
Many other states, including Maryland, are spending far more of the money on fighting smoking and its resulting illnesses, coalition members said.
"This money can be used to save lives, and that's all that matters to us," said Gio Neri, of "Friends . . . Cancer Support Companions Inc."
Sympathetic lawmakers today included Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), who won election to the state Senate this month in part by pushing the Democratic transportation plan, which relied heavily on the tobacco settlement money. "I think the percentage is negotiable and really agree that we have to put some of it toward health," Puller said.
Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax) said he heard many questions from voters wondering why the tobacco money wasn't going toward health care. "It certainly seems to me legitimate to go to lung cancer research or something that's related," he said.
But Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said that the national settlement money is merely repaying the state for what it has spent on treating tobacco-related illnesses. The General Assembly, he said, is free to use that money now for any government function.
"It amounts to reimbursing the general fund for money that's already been spent dealing with tobacco," Callahan said.