SENATOR SAUNDERS WANTS TO REFUND ANTI-SMOKING CAMPAIGN-Andrew Stelzer

02/16/06

Florida would bring back the edgy "truth campaign" and other elements of a program to combat youth smoking under a $58 million proposal announced Tuesday by the state Senate's top health care budget writer.

Florida's effort to convince kids that smoking isn't cool was a hit in the late-90s with catchy - if a bit irreverent - television commercials, and was credited with dramatic drops in the number of children who said they smoked.

But the program, which went beyond the TV ad campaign, was also teen-oriented, often used youthful language, and many legislators seemed to just not get it. After pumping $70 million into it from the state's settlement of a lawsuit with cigarette makers in 1998, funding dropped off steeply and it has essentially been made dormant, getting just $1 million in state money each of the last three years.

Some said the ads bordered on offensive. One featured an Oscars-like awards show where a tobacco company executive accepted an award for "Most Deaths in a Year." In the audience were Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, is chairman of the committee that decides what health care items get in the Senate's proposed budget. He proposed restoring spending for the program to $57.9 million, and requiring that it include an advertising component. "The tobacco settlement that was entered into by the state of Florida and the major tobacco companies really was initiated into by the desire to keep children from smoking and to recoup some of the Medicaid cost attributed to treating smoking related illnesses. The anti-teen smoking program that we have had in the past have been tremendously successful in reducing teenage smoking rates. We've eliminated that program and it's my concern that those rates will start to climb again if we don't reinstitute the program and to continue with those initiatives to keep our kids from smoking."

"And so how much funding are you asking?"

"I'm asking for Fifty eight million dollars for the state wide program. When the program was first initiated it was a seventy million dollar program and it was reduced to fifty million then ultimately reduced to just one million dollars a year. And at the fifty million dollar level it was a national model for other states to follow. And at those levels it was enough to get the message out that smoking was addictive and has tremendous healthcare consequences for individual smokers.

"And so what kind of momentum do you have; why did the legislature let this funding go from, I mean obviously it was the settlement money but why did they let this obviously highly successful program become almost extinct?"

"It was a tremendously successful program; smoking rates were cut in half amongst teenagers; and I think there were just some members among the legislators who felt that advertising was not the best way to spend money, that advertising wasn't successful. They're incorrect and advertising has been very successful and hopefully we can generate enough interest to reinstate the program.

"And what kind of a feeling are you getting so far?"

"Well it's kind of mixed; some of the members have said they agree and some of the members say they don't agree so it's going to be a battle to get more money for the program this year; we'll get more money but not as much as I'd like to get; there is a constitutional initiative, a ballot initiative that the voters will be able to vote on in November this year that would require the state to spend fifty seven million dollars a year for smoking cessation and anti-teen initiatives; and so the money is going to be there if not this year in the very near future.

"And that's the other thing; folks are trying to get something on the ballot to force something that had worked. Do you feel that the pending item will take something away from you to get funding or visa-versa in that...

"No, I'm not so sure that that would even be a factor. I'm telling folks that this constitutional amendment is going to pass and we might as well get used to spending the money and start up the program now but the real initiative is that this is a program that worked, we need to keep doing it. There's always a question that the constitutional question won't make it to the ballot or won't be approved by the voters. I'd like to see the legislature funding the program regardless of that. p>

"Yeah I'm just wondering if people are going to say, well, we'll let the people decide, we don't have to deal with this."

"Well, and that's just not the best way for us to do our budgeting. This is a very successful program, it's not a big program in terms of the overall size of state government. We have a seventy billion dollar budget. We don't let the voters decide on initiatives just how we spend just about all of the money we spend; that's just not the best way to handle it. I think we need to get the program started again regardless of what happens with that constitutional initiative.

Saunders told WMNF that the legislature was foolish to defund such a successful program.

SAUNDERS ON TOBACCO

That was State senator Burt Saunders, speaking about his push to refund the anti smoking “truth campaign�

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