Budget cuts threaten anti-tobacco program
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times,
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's nationally recognized youth tobacco prevention program is facing deep budget reductions, just as surveys indicate that previous cuts may be undermining its effectiveness.
The program started with a budget of $70-million in 1998 but has been cut by state legislators throughout its history.
The budget now stands at $37-million, with the Senate proposing a $9.2-million cut and the House proposing as much as a $15.6-million cut.
Program advocates say the cuts could not come at a worse time.
"This program is a phenomenal achievement," said Ralph DeVitto of the American Cancer Society. "The latest results are very positive, but the program is weakening. The Legislature is slowly destroying a successful program."
The Department of Health released the latest survey Tuesday after advocacy groups, working to prevent program cuts, announced they would release drafts of the latest Florida Youth Tobacco Survey.
Advocates pushed for the release, hoping it would discourage legislators from slashing the program budget.
The latest survey shows the program still is effective, but cracks are starting to show.
The survey shows decreases in the percentages of high school students who smoke and those who have tried cigarettes. Since 1998, smoking among high school students has declined by 31 percent, and by 47 percent among middle school students.
"The news from the report is great," said Danny McGoldrick, research director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. "The program is still the national model."
The survey, however, included some foreboding signs.
For the first time, there were no declines reported in tobacco use among middle school students, and an actual increase in use among sixth- and seventh-graders as they moved to seventh and eighth grades.
The flat results in middle school coupled with still-promising signs in high school suggest that the high-profile message of the program's beginning -- the edgy TRUTH television commercials -- is still yielding results.
But younger kids now in middle school missed out on the first years of the anti-smoking message. The report says the message "may have become less novel or cutting edge."
Since 1998, the program's budget has been reduced, with spending on paid advertising particularly hard hit.
Advocates fear that as funding has been reduced, effectiveness also may be declining.
Early on, the cuts could be defended because the program no longer required the kind of money needed to get the campaign up and running.
This year, however, program proponents fear it will be a tempting source of revenue in a time of budget crisis.
This week, as the Legislature meets to make deep cuts in the state budget, DeVitto and others advocating for the anti-tobacco program are just a few of the countless lobbyists and advocates plugging their favorite programs.
But, they argue, this program is different because it has a clear source of revenue -- the state's landmark 1997 settlement with tobacco companies -- and it saves money in the long run.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire