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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Tobacco Suit Nets County $233 Million

Settlement: Most supervisors foresee spending the money largely on health care and anti-smoking programs.

November 17, 1998|PAMELA J. JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Within hours of the announcement that California and its counties will receive a generous portion of a multibillion-dollar tobacco settlement, Ventura County supervisors Monday were reviewing ways to spend the money.

Although the $233 million Ventura County stands to gain from the lawsuit's resolution will be unrestricted, some supervisors say the bulk of the money should be spent on health care, including anti-smoking programs.

The settlement money--$9.32 million annually until 2025--legally can be spent in any county department from health care to public works to social services, said Noel Klebaum, the county's litigation supervisor.

The payments are designed to reimburse the county for the money it has spent to treat patients with smoking-related illnesses. In all, negotiators for cigarette makers worked out a more than $200-billion agreement to settle lawsuits against the tobacco industry in 36 states.

In Ventura County, supervisors will ultimately decide how the money will be spent during the next round of budget hearings in June, according to Bert Bigler, chief deputy administration officer. The county does not expect to receive its first installment until spring at the earliest, he said.

"Since it's unrestricted, it could be used in a whole array of county programs," Bigler said. "It's up to the board to identify the county's top priority needs."

Board Chairwoman Judy Mikels said public workshops should be conducted on the issue in the near future.

"We need to discuss this long before June," Mikels said. "If we wait until June, the different departments will have decided for us."

But she said her "initial gut reaction" was that most of the settlement money should be spent on health care.

"Certainly, the lion's share should go to the health care system, since the lawsuit was based on health" issues, Mikels said. "Most, if not all of the funds, should go for patients who have illnesses related to smoking. And some should be directed to prevent people from smoking."

Supervisor Kathy Long said she also believes the money should be spent to help finance programs that discourage smoking and to treat patients with tobacco-related illnesses.

"Clearly, it's going to have to go directly to our health care programs and the patients we see in our county hospitals and clinics," Long said.

Before making a decision, Long said she wants to see how the county will benefit from the passage of Proposition 10, a ballot initiative that will increase taxes on cigarettes in California by 50 cents per pack, beginning Jan. 1.

The $750-million a year in new revenue anticipated from Proposition 10 would help finance a variety of general health, anti-smoking and day-care programs for California infants and preschoolers.

Public Heath Director Paul Lorenz said he will encourage supervisors to spend some of the funds to maintain the county's existing tobacco education and control program. The $250,000 annually the county now receives from the state for that program is expected to run out in 2001.

Supervisor Frank Schillo said he wants Ventura's share of the tobacco settlement to benefit youth, including parenting programs.

"It all starts at home," he said. "We could start by educating parents about the dangers of smoking."

* MAIN STORY: A1

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