Dorso Column:House Seems Fed Up With Tobacco Agency

The 1998 tobacco settlement negotiated between the states and the big four tobacco companies was to have netted the 46 signatory states a minimum of 206 billion over 25 years. There were a number of agreements that went into the settlement not all of which sat well with the North Dakota legislature at that time.

One of those was the setting up of programs to encourage cessation of tobacco use. Millions went to each state that was a party to the agreement dedicated to advertising campaigns. The main focus was to be a reduction of youth addiction.

As the settlement was a master agreement signed by the separate states you either had to take it lose it. It wasn’t just the money that was tempting it was also the avoidance of the numerous law suits that would have begun to clog our state courts as individuals sued the tobacco companies. Part of the agreement was the barring of tobacco suits in the state’s courts which signed the deal. The multi state suit was based on the cost of Medicare and Medicaid expense the states had been spending on patients with tobacco induced health issues.

A large portion of the money accruing to the states was unencumbered. The anti tobacco people argued that we should put even more money into cessation programs then were mandated by the agreement. The legislature wisely chose to put most of the unencumbered money into education and water projects. At the time we focused on the Grand Forks and Devils Lake flooding issues.

Many of us were against setting up a state agency to handle all of the money that would be flowing into the cessation programs. Most of us knew that once the agency was started it would grow its own constituency looking for even more money then was flowing from the agreement. The logic most heard was, “we are going to save our teens from getting addicted”. In North Dakota the mention of our youth usually gets money thrown at the problem. Over a decade later those of us who were skeptical of the program are proven to be right.

I was very interested in the vote on SB2024 which appropriates money to the agency charged with this task. It seems that the N.D. House of Representatives has decided enough is enough. After measure five passed what we feared a decade ago has come to pass. How many tax dollars or cessation dollars were spent to get measure five passed? I’ll bet no one has ever checked because there is probably a gray line between advocacy and cessation programs. The question I would like answered is how effective have the cessation programs been. With multi millions spent on the programs there should be significant reductions in tobacco usage. Then there is the question of how much of the money is drained off for administrative costs.

The legislature has a tough one to deal with. There are the mandates which came with measure five and the tobacco settlement that have to be recognized. The problem isn’t all that different then Higher Education’s independence from legislative oversight. The agencies enshrined in the constitution have to be funded but most of your state agencies are not advocacy groups. In this case the people enshrined an advocacy group which over time will morph into the same problem as the board of Higher Education. The NDUS board is supposed to be a governing board but as we have seen they have a problem with that function of their mandate. The NDUS board certainly takes there advocacy seriously as they lobby for more money with little oversight. The tobacco board will in the end become a rubber stamp for the full time state employees they hire and then the need for more money with fewer controls will be just over the horizon.

Basically this conundrum is why I dislike the Heritage Fund. It is my opinion that advocacy groups should be supported by charitable contributions not taxpayer money. Case in point would be Planned Parenthood that receives taxpayer dollars through federal grants.

Once these things get enshrined in state law they are almost impossible to get rid of. As I said a decade ago “we’ll wish we hadn’t started down the tobacco cessation road”. Some day the Heritage Fund will take state dollars and lobby for an ever increasing share of the taxpayers money. As they begin to buy up land in rural North Dakota, driving up land values and decreasing the political subs tax base, the same debates will take place as the present problem with SB2024.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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