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Antismoking groups seek help of voters

Associated Press
Published July 21, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Tired of trying to persuade the Legislature to spend money to keep kids from smoking, antitobacco groups are asking voters to change the state Constitution to create a dedicated fund for prevention programs.

Florida's program aimed at keeping kids from lighting up used to be widely praised and copied. After its settlement with the tobacco industry the state set aside $70-million of settlement money in 1998 to persuade kids that smoking isn't cool.

Advocates and researchers said it clearly worked, as smoking by middle and high school students dropped. The state touted the program too, saying the decline in youth smoking could be attributed at least in part to the "TRUTH" advertising campaign.

Lawmakers, however, slowly backed away from the program, cutting its annual budget to between $37-million and $44-million in the next four years and eroding spending to just $1-million in each of the last three years.

"There are no signs that adequate funding will be provided in the near future," said Dr. Michael Kasper, a board member of Floridians for Youth Tobacco Education. "We have gone to the state Legislature time and time again - unsuccessfully, despite having proof that the youth tobacco prevention program in this state was a national model. It was working. The program has been decimated.

"We felt that the only recourse ... was to take it to the people."

The proposed constitutional amendment would require that 15 percent of the 2005 tobacco settlement payment be earmarked each year for youth smoking prevention programs, including radio and television ads, school programs and enforcement of teen smoking laws.

That would amount to about $54-million a year, an amount that would be adjusted annually for inflation. The state will receive about $360-million from cigarettemakers this year.

Supporters must collect about 611,000 voter signatures to get the measure on the November 2006 ballot.

Lawmakers cut funding for the programs in part because some questioned whether the cutting-edge advertising campaigns were the best way to spend state money. Some said the ads portrayed adults as part of a conspiracy to make kids smoke. Others said the ads were offensive.

"The success of the program in the past was that it was driven by youth," Kasper said. "It's not about (legislators). We're not talking to them. We're talking to the youth."

House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said he opposes any effort to use the Constitution to bolster antismoking funding.

"I think the last place we should have a special requirement for advertising is in the Constitution," Bense said. "If folks are unhappy with the way we spend money, vote us out. Don't put something like that in the Constitution."

[Last modified July 21, 2005, 00:56:18]

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