By Michael Ko Chicago Tribune Staff Writer November 17, 1999

For 50 years, starting when she was 18, Donna Carlisle smoked between one to four packs of cigarettes each day. Although she quit last December, she is confined to a wheelchair, suffers from congestive heart disease and needs to breathe oxygen out of a portable tank 24 hours a day.

Water collects in her lungs, and on bad days, despite assistance from her son, the 68-year-old Glendale Heights resident can't even manage the task of getting out of the wheelchair without her heart rate jumping to 109 beats per minute.

"I spend most of the day on the edge of my bed, watching TV," said Carlisle, adding that her hands frequently reach for cigarettes that aren't there. "The phone is always next to me so I can call 911. I'm a prisoner in my own house . . . I can't even walk to the bathroom to wash my face."

As legislators brace for the tremendous task of spending the state's $9.1 billion tobacco settlement windfall, Carlisle is among a unique population that hopes some of that money will come its way.

Contending they were among the first generations to be targeted by cigarette manufacturers--in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, before any of the health hazards of smoking were ever realized--a small but concerned group of DuPage County senior citizens gathered Tuesday at the York Township Center in Lombard to kick off the "Tobacco and Seniors: The 25% Campaign."

The Illinois Association of Area Agencies on Aging, which sponsored the event, is recommending that 25 percent of the settlement be distributed to programs for the state's senior citizens.

"We simply want persons suffering from smoking-related illnesses to improve their health and enjoy the rest of their lives," said Charles Johnson, executive director of the association's northeastern chapter and campaign spokesman. "If we don't do something to get the word out, we're afraid legislators are going to spend the money on everything else."

Senior citizens were among those who began smoking heavily in the first half of the century, when cigarettes were an encouraged, cultural norm and the surgeon general's warnings were nowhere in sight, said speakers at Tuesday's event.

It wasn't until 1964 that the first surgeon general's report came out linking smoking with cancer. Only then did the government force cigarette companies to place warning labels on their packages.

"There was no dialogue at all of the dangers," said Maxine Hansen, 75, a Wheaton resident whose father and husband died of smoking-related illnesses. "Back then, I remember the doctors themselves were smoking heavily. They were recommending different brands to their patients."

According to the state's Department of Public Health, about 23,000 deaths each year in Illinois are attributed to smoking-related illnesses. Of those, 70 percent are people over 65. And according to the Chicago chapter of the American Lung Association, the state spends $2.9 billion in public and private funds to combat smoking-related diseases. Included in that figure is the $560 million budgeted each year by the state for Medicaid payments.

The 25 percent would not only improve the lives of senior citizens on a day-to-day public health cost, explained Dr. Tom Cornwell, medical director of HomeCare Physicians, an outreach program associated with Winfield-based Central DuPage Health System.

Funding increased home health care would, in turn, help prevent unnecessary ambulance trips, emergency hospital visits and nursing-home placements.

The 25 percent also would fund programs to alleviate the burden on the family and caregivers of those suffering from smoking-related illnesses.

A legislative forum on the issue will be held at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday at the College of DuPage, Building K.