The North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control is a state agency you know better, from their obnoxiously preachy and almost ubiquitous advertising, as BreatheND.
The agency was created back in 2008 by a ballot measure, and it was funded by a portion of our state’s settlement dollars from the class action lawsuits against the tobacco companies. But those payments are running out this year – the state is due just one more in the coming months – and both former Governor Jack Dalrymple and current Governor Doug Burgum removed the agency from their executive budgets.
Today the Senate voted on SB2024 which follows through on that recommendation from the executive branch. The bill dissolves BreatheND, eliminates its eight (lavishly paid) positions, and moves responsibility for administering the state’s on-going anti-tobacco efforts to the Department of Health.
That state agency will get funding for one employee to carry out that function. The agency also has a trust fund with a balance well north of $50 million which will continue to exist.
As it has been operated, BreatheND is little more than a slush fund for private anti-tobacco groups and marketing agencies. They agency doled out grants and ad buys all while crediting themselves with declines in tobacco use here in North Dakota. Whether or not they deserve that credit is debatable.
Has tobacco use declined in our state because of ominous radio and television ads, or because things like smoking have just fallen out of favor with the public?After all, it’s hard to argue in 2017 that anyone lacks awareness of the health risks associated with tobacco use.
Senator Erin Oban (D-Bismarck) – who used to work for one of the anti-tobacco groups which received grants from BreatheND – spoke at length in opposition to the bill. “This is completely dishonoring the will of the people,” she said, referring to the initiated measure which created the group.
I’m not sure that’s a valid argument. After all, the settlement payments funding BreatheND are drying up. The time is ripe to make a change. Folding whatever on-going tobacco programs the state is going to administer into the Department of Health is appropriate.
“It’s just a different approach,” Senator Dick Dever (R-Bismarck) said in response to Oban’s gripes. He also corrected a claim she made about this being the first time in state history that the Legislature has completely overturned policy created on the ballot. He noted that the Senate this session voted on legislation to allow parking meters. A ban on them had previously been put in place years ago through an initiated measure.
Senator Tim Mathern (D-Fargo) attempted a floor amendment to the bill, but it went down in flames. The final vote passing the bill was 36-10. It goes onto the House were it will almost certainly pass with flying covers.
I’m not a fan of smoking. I’ve never smoked myself. I don’t like to be around smoking. But I don’t think it’s the job of the state government to combat the use of a product that’s legal. I look forward to BreatheND’s demise, and to the people who work there finding a more useful sort of work.