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Senate approves rolling BreatheND into health department

BISMARCK—The state's tobacco prevention and control agency came one step closer to being rolled into the North Dakota Department of Health.

Members of the North Dakota Senate voted 36-10 in favor of Senate Bill 2024, which would eliminate the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, or BreatheND, and move tobacco settlement dollars to the North Dakota Department of Health effective July 1, the beginning of the new biennium.

Senators later passed Senate Bill 2004, the health department budget, by a 42-4 vote.

SB2024 bill carrier Sen. Ralph Kilzer, R-Bismarck, said the health department dealt with tobacco cessation programs prior to the 2008 measure passed by voters to create the current program.

"We're experienced in both situations," said Kilzer, urging lawmakers to support SB2024.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, slammed the proposed change.

"This is completely dishonoring the vote of the people," Oban said. "A wholly wrong move."

She called it ironic that the chamber would support such a move just minutes after passing a high-profile medical marijuana law rewrite on to the House that was touted as being done to honor the will of the people.

Sen. Gary Lee, R-Casselton, said the purpose of the move is to ensure the long-term viability of cessation programs. He said tobacco settlement dollars set aside for the programs will eventually run out, so moving the programs to the health department would avoid future problems.

He added that tobacco usage has been declining in North Dakota for about 20 years.

"I think we're on the right track for the long term," Lee said.

While BreatheND has had a major impact, he said the eight-person agency has been around since after the ballot measure and can't take full credit for the decline, Kilzer said..

"They certainly had a big part in it," Kilzer said.

The amended health department budget contains about $201 million in spending for the 2017-19 biennium and authorization for 377 full-time staff, an increase of 12.

A newly created medical marijuana division accounts for the additional staff, of which there is more than $6.2 million in the bill for funding.

In SB2004, tobacco program dollars are increased from a base level of $6.9 million to more than $12.1 million to account for the actions taken in SB2024.