Tobacco-free advocates worry about budget cuts

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MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — The state of Indiana has appealed a recent decision to decrease the amount of money major tobacco companies are ordered to pay as a result of smoke-related illnesses, and local health department officials are equally concerned about future funding.

An arbitration panel ruled in late 2013 the companies should pay Indiana $68.2 million as opposed to the projected $131.2 million amount ordered as a part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement.

With much of the Delaware County Health Department funding coming from the tobacco settlement agreements, The Starr Press reports (http://tspne.ws/1bGwcL2 ) local tobacco-free advocates fear any cut would put a stop to the momentum the tobacco-free movement has seen in the community in recent years.

"Now is not the time for these cuts, especially when we know the dangers of tobacco use, second-hand smoke and the harm for children with asthma ... all while the companies continue to market to young people with millions of dollars," said Judy Mays, tobacco-free education coordinator for the Health Coalition of Delaware County. "We've done some great work here and we need to keeping educating the community on how to quit. We still have work to do."

The Delaware County Health Department operates with a budget close to $914,000, with most of their funds coming from tobacco settlement dollars, grants and state dollars.

Indiana ranks 49th in the United States (including the District of Columbia) in public health funding from state dollars, forcing health departments to apply for federal and private grants to do their work.

Joshua Williams, the DCHD administrator, said the local office received two large awards — $72,000 from the Local Health Maintenance Fund and $47,000 from the Health Department TrustGrant — from dollars directly funded by the tobacco settlement for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

The office also received smaller amounts to assist with public health education and screenings throughout the same fiscal year.

Any cut in those funds would force DCHD to do less work — especially in regards to smoking prevention among children and pregnant women — with perhaps fewer people. The department is already working with fewer staff than recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We have plans to work with pregnant women and decreasing their rate of smoking in Delaware County and helping more people with smoking cessation. With a nearly 50 percent cut in state dollars, we'll expect a cut of that size for us as well. That would force us to stop some of that work," Williams said.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller is fighting the arbitration ruling, hoping to force the companies — the Philip Morris Tobacco Company, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, the Lorillard Tobacco Company and other cigarette manufacturers — to pay closer to the $131.2 million original settlement.

The tobacco-free and health department budgets are set for this fiscal year, but what happens in the future is anyone's guess.

Tobacco-free advocates encourage supporters to contact their state legislators — they create the state budgets — to discuss their feelings about the potential decrease.

"We need to keep this (tobacco-free) issue out in front of people and we'll have a hard time doing that with less money," said Jacey Foley, coordinator of the Tobacco-Free Coalition of Delaware County, a position funded by settlement dollars. "A lot of what we do is education and without these funds, prevention education can't take place. This affects every aspect of a child and an adult's life, so we need to keep people thinking about this."

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com

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