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State cuts to anti-smoking programs anger health groups

Health groups are condemning the governor's new budget plan for reducing efforts to control smoking, a move they claim will disproportionately hit low-income residents.

"Budget cuts are going to kill people," said Andrew Hyland, a Roswell Park Cancer Institute scientist who is also director of the New York State Smokers' Quitline, a telephone and online support center that offers assistance to get smokers to give up their addiction.

Hyland and other advocates said cuts over the past several years -- along with another $5 million cut Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing this year -- are gutting a state tobacco control program.

The tobacco effort -- a combination of television anti-smoking marketing and money for local health groups involved in smoking cessation -- is set to drop to $36 million from a high of $85 million four years ago. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the state spend at least $250 million to best reduce smoking rates.

At Roswell Park, calls to the quitline have fallen from about 80,000 annually to between 50,000 to 60,000 calls now. The call center has shed about 20 of its 60 jobs. Advocates say there is a direct correlation between what the state spends on anti-tobacco marketing and calls to the quitline for help.

The American Cancer Society said the effects of the reduced cessation efforts are showing up in the state's lowest income areas. The smoking rate among residents with family incomes above $50,000 has dropped 32 percent, to 12.2 percent in 2010, from 2000. However, the tobacco use rate among people with incomes below $15,000 annually has stayed flat during the same period, at about 23 percent.

Russell Sciandra, New York State director of advocacy for the American Cancer Society, said the smoking rates continue to be highest in the Western and Central New York regions.

"Cuts in this program have simply devastated the ability to reach this population," he said of low-income residents.

The governor's office declined to comment.