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Panel votes to phase out ND center for tobacco prevention

BISMARCK—A North Dakota Senate committee has initiated a move to dissolve North Dakota's tobacco prevention and control agency.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 11-3 on Friday to give Senate Bill 2024 a do-pass recommendation. The bill would phase out the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, or BreatheND, by the end of the biennium and shift tobacco settlement funds to the state Health Department.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, said the bill received a party-line vote, with the three Democrats on the committee voting against it.

Holmberg said the bill could come up on the Senate floor as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

Former Gov. Jack Dalyrmple recommended the agency be eliminated in his final budget address in December. Gov. Doug Burgum also did not include funding for BreatheND in his budget proposal.

Jeanne Prom, executive director of BreatheND, expressed concern that eliminating the agency could undo the work it already has done, which includes cutting youth smoking rates in half since the agency's inception.

"This is a real big step backwards in public health," Prom said.

BreatheND was created in 2008 after North Dakota voters approved a measure to use a percentage of the state's tobacco settlement fund — part of an agreement states reached with big tobacco companies in 1998 — for a comprehensive tobacco prevention program.

The agency uses about 20 percent of the tobacco settlement for a prevention program.

"Even in these economic times that we have in our state right now, there's still ample tobacco settlement money to be used for a comprehensive program without a dime of taxpayers' money, without a dime from the state general fund. And yet (legislators are) ignoring the vote of the people — an initiated measure that created this comprehensive program," Prom said.

The state could save money by eliminating BreatheND, thus creating only one agency, the Health Department, that would focus on tobacco prevention, according to Holmberg, who noted the agency's current costs included "some of the highest salaries in the state" for its eight employees.

"Some people could look at that and say, you know, maybe the Health Department could do it a little cheaper," Holmberg said.

Prom said her salary and her employees' salaries are set by the Office of Management and Budget and are within the permitted ranges. She also said many of her employees have upward of 35 years of experience.

Two Democrats who voted against the bill in committee pointed to the BreatheND's track record in reducing smoking rates.

"BreatheND has been a complete success story, it has worked; it's one of the best programs in the country, and, to me, it's a mistake that we're not getting behind it and supporting it and keeping it in place," said Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley City.

"The bottom line is, the Health Department is going to be loaded implementing medical marijuana, and to take this on on top of it is clearly a step in the wrong direction," Robinson said.