With a behind-the-scenes battle brewing about how to spend the state's recent $25 billion settlement with the tobacco industry, a coalition of health groups on Tuesday urged that a significant portion of the money be set aside for stepped-up efforts to reduce smoking, particularly among teen-agers.
The groups, including the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association, called on Senate Republicans when they return here for a brief session Oct. 7 to set aside 20 percent of the settlement's proceeds for tobacco control.
Earlier this year, the Democratic-led Assembly passed legislation that advocates said would pump about $90 million a year into reducing cigarette smoking -- up from about $6.5 million now.
"Today, New York faces a critical choice," said Matt Meyers, general counsel for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
Meyers said New York's past leadership in tobacco-control efforts has been surpassed by a number of other states, where higher spending on anti-tobacco advertising and other programs has reduced smoking rates far below those in New York; nearly one-fourth of adults in New York smoke, and a third of all teen-agers light up regularly.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that New York should be spending $95 million a year if it intends to make a serious dent in smoking rates. But the state's settlement with major cigarette-makers -- which will divide $25 billion over 25 years between the state and county governments across New York -- is already being eyed by various interests for everything from tax reductions to education aid.
Erie County, for example, plans to use its $548 million share to lower taxes, among other things.
"It would be extremely shortsighted of New York State to divert this money to other uses," Meyers said. He noted that cutting smoking rates would not only save lives, of which state health officials say 30,000 are lost each year to smoking-related illnesses in New York, but would also reduce the government's health-care tab for treating such illnesses.
John McArdle, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, declined to comment on the group's demands except to note that the Senate leader has said the settlement should be used for tax cuts, debt reduction and various health-care items, chiefly to deal with uninsured New Yorkers.
There is no chance that the issue will be resolved Oct. 7 when the Senate returns for an hour or so to act on several bills approved by the Assembly on the last night of the session in early August, including an abortion clinic-access measure.
However, the state's complex reimbursement system for hospitals and nursing homes expires on Dec. 31, and all lawmakers are expected back here by early December to take up the matter; the tobacco settlement money could find itself in the middle of that debate.
The health groups sought to advance their cause by tapping a bit of television star power in their pitch on Tuesday by bringing to the Capitol S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays a police lieutenant on NBC's "Law and Order."
A reformed smoker who lost her best friend to lung cancer, Ms. Merkerson called on Gov. Pataki and legislative leaders to live up to the goals of reducing smoking that was called for by several state attorneys general, including former New York Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, when New York and 45 other states settled with the industry last winter.
"Gov. Pataki and legislators are poised to save thousands of New Yorkers . . . from an early death," she said.