The American Lung Assn. and Democratic lawmakers on Thursday launched a legal and political attack to block Gov. Pete Wilson from suspending the state's widely praised anti-smoking education and advertising program.
The lung association, a chief sponsor of the 1988 voter-approved measure creating the anti-tobacco programs, announced that it will sue Wilson in an effort to stop him from diverting the money to a program providing health care for poor pregnant women.
The Republican governor's critics accused him of doing the tobacco industry's bidding, implying that he has been influenced by political contributions. They said Wilson has abandoned a commitment he made only last summer and contradicted his own professed support for programs that prevent illness rather than react to it.
"The Wilson Administration has done for the tobacco industry what millions of dollars and enormous political donations could not do: strangle one of the most effective health programs in history," said Carolyn Martin, a lung association volunteer and chairwoman of the Tobacco Education Oversight Committee, a state advisory group.
Democrat Bruce Bronzan of Fresno, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said the move was inconsistent with Wilson's "preventive government" philosophy.
"It is so much cheaper to impact somebody in their mind about not smoking than to care for them in the public health system after they get cancer," Bronzan said at a Capitol news conference.
The education and advertising program was created in 1989 over the fierce objections of the tobacco industry. At one key point, the industry reportedly hired 24 lobbyists in an unsuccessful effort to sidetrack the bill implementing Proposition 99, which raised cigarette taxes by 25 cents a pack.
The first television commercials appeared in 1990 and generated nationwide attention because of their no-holds-barred attack on the industry. In one ad, industry executives are portrayed as sitting in a smoke-filled office devising tactics to lure people to smoke despite the habit's known health risks. "We're not in business for our health," one of the fictitious executives says.
Last year, Health Services Director Molly Joel Coye said the Administration was "proud of the progress the campaign has made in the state's fight against tobacco." In a press release, Coye trumpeted the results of a study that found that 33,000 Californians said the ad campaign had motivated them to quit smoking and another 140,000 said the ads were "significantly related" to their decision to quit.
At the same time, however, the Wilson Administration sought to shift $27 million from the advertising and education programs to the governor's new prenatal insurance program, known as Access for Infants and Mothers, or AIM. Backers of the anti-tobacco effort agreed to the transfer after the Administration pledged not to try again to divert additional funds for at least three years.
The same legislation that funded the AIM program also appropriated $32 million for a two-year advertising contract and directed the Administration to hire a private firm to produce the commercials.
Now, barely six months later, the governor has abandoned his pledge and impounded the unspent funds--$16 million for the first year of the contract. He also asked the Legislature to shift $60 million this year and next from advertising, education and research to the prenatal care program.
The lawsuit, which lawyers said would get its first hearing Monday in Sacramento Superior Court, contends that Wilson is breaking the law by refusing to spend the advertising money appropriated by the Legislature.
"This is a matter of government integrity," said Anthony P. Najera, the American Lung Assn. lobbyist who negotiated the 1991 deal with Wilson's aides. Democratic Assemblyman Lloyd Connelly of Sacramento called it a "squalid affair."
Kassy Perry, a spokeswoman for the Health and Welfare Agency, said Wilson had chosen in a tight budget year to provide health care to pregnant women who do not qualify for Medi-Cal but are still too poor to afford private care. Perry acknowledged that the Administration had backed away from last year's agreement.
"That was last year. This is this year," Perry said. "At this point we feel there's no other option to continue health care without using a portion of the Proposition 99 funds."
At the press conference and in separate interviews, the anti-tobacco forces have implied that Wilson's decision may have been influenced by a fund-raiser that Philip Morris USA sponsored last year to raise about $100,000 for Wilson and the Republican Party's effort to take control of the Legislature. Wilson refused contributions from the industry during his 1990 campaign, but he accepted a $25,000 donation from Philip Morris for his inaugural celebration and then attended the $5,000-per-couple fund-raiser in August.
"We are saddened by this," Mark Pertschuk, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, said in an interview. "We actually felt we might have a governor who was not bought off by the tobacco industry."
Wilson press secretary Bill Livingstone said there was "absolutely no connection" between the fund-raiser and the governor's decision to suspend the anti-tobacco program fought by the industry.