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Bill aims $35m at smoking cessation

A coalition of state lawmakers and activists is promoting legislation that would restore a trust fund for tobacco prevention and bolster smoking cessation programs.

Advocates said the bill, endorsed by 50 lawmakers, would allocate at least $35 million for a comprehensive tobacco control program by tapping into tobacco settlement money the state is to begin receiving next year. Under the terms of the settlement, the state should get an extra $47 million annually for the next 10 years. The legislation was proposed by state Representative Rachel Kaprielian, Democrat of Watertown .

The national settlement with the tobacco companies has generated roughly $350 million annually for Massachusetts since 1998, according to advocates. Initially, the money was put into a trust fund, but that was eliminated in 2002 when the economy began to sour and the money was funneled to other health care services.

The state spent just $8.25 million for tobacco control programs during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The House and Senate have agreed to increase that to $12.75 million this fiscal year -- but that is still far below the $35 million recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and the $73 million spent on the programs in 2000.

After Massachusetts joined the national tobacco settlement in 1998, which put the state in line to receive an estimated $7.6 billion over 25 years, state leaders expanded antismoking programs and put millions in a special fund for future healthcare needs. But five years ago, the state began putting more settlement money toward general healthcare, while eliminating most of the money for antismoking programs.

With Massachusetts now poised to receive more money, antismoking activists want the funds used for their intended purpose, not to balance the state budget.

"If we're looking to reform healthcare, we need to look at this issue," said Diane Pickles, a consultant to Tobacco Free Mass and the organization's former executive director. "We don't want to see the money dumped into the General Fund. The intent of this was to help smokers quit."

At a hearing yesterday, state Senator Harriette L. Chandler strongly endorsed expanding the state's smoking cessation program. "This is an important issue that could once again make Massachusetts a leader in tobacco control," said Chandler, a Worcester Democrat. "The hardest thing to break is the tobacco habit."

Chip Thayer, 63, said he smoked for 30 years before quitting in 1990, shortly after his father, a longtime smoker, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Thayer was later diagnosed with lung cancer and said he has had "several different brands of chemotherapy" since.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," said Thayer, a volunteer with the American Cancer Society, who testified at yesterday's hearing. "The reason they always give you is there's not enough money to go around. But this is a tremendous opportunity."

Stephen Smith of the Globe staff contributed to this report.