Proposal would divert tobacco-prevention money
Seventh-graders Dijon Duke and Andy Grams stood in front of the video camera, glared into the lens and said together: ``Thanks, Big Tobacco, for trying to kill us.''
Along with other students at John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood on Monday, the boys had just spent 15 minutes looking at displays of tobacco company documents indicating that the companies have targeted teen-agers in their advertising. Their brief video piece, along with those of hundreds of other Minnesota teens, will be forwarded to tobacco company executives as part of a campaign to discourage smoking among Minnesota teens.
The statewide prevention program, Target Market, is just finishing its first year, but a legislative proposal would slash this and other new statewide youth tobacco-prevention programs and divert that money to increase funding to the University of Minnesota Medical School.
The current youth anti-smoking efforts are funded with interest earnings on a $282-million endowment established with money from the state's $6 billion settlement with the tobacco industry.
A proposal by Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring, would take most of the money now used on statewide tobacco prevention and use it instead to recruit and retain medical school faculty and to expand pharmacy, dentistry, nursing and medical technology programs into greater Minnesota.
``It's becoming such an issue in my area of the state,'' Stang said. He lives outside St. Cloud, which like many less-populated areas has a shortage of dentists and pharmacists. As the problem seems to worsen, small-town and rural health care need a stable and ongoing funding source, such as the endowment, he said.
Dropping promising statewide anti-smoking programs is a bad idea, said Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm.
``The administration is very opposed to the idea of trying to meet the Academic Health Center's needs by taking resources away from one of the state's top health priorities,'' Malcolm said, and doing it at a time when the new programs are just getting established. ``We are very confident we are on the right track, and we are going to demonstrate this is one of the best investments ever made in the state in terms of lives saved and dollars saved.''
The tug of war reflects a larger budget battle over funding for the University's Academic Health Center. The center sought an additional $34 million for the upcoming two-year budget cycle. Ventura's budget includes only $16 million.
The medical school already receives a chunk of funding -- $14 million to $15 million every two years -- from a medical education endowment paid for with tobacco settlement funds. The Stang proposal would give them an additional $23 million to $25 million every two years from tobacco funds, by diverting most of the interest earnings from an endowment established for the smoking prevention efforts. This is more than Ventura budgeted, but less than the health center sought.
The Academic Health Center already has made cuts and focused on priorities, spokeswoman Sarah Youngerman said, but it still requires more than the governor budgeted to perform essential work. As for cutting an anti-smoking program to give more to the medical school, it's not the school's role to dictate where the money should come from, Youngerman said.
``We are hopeful that in times of surplus that the state can support both,'' she said.
Stang said he thinks some legislators question the value of the tobacco-prevention program and believe that outstate health care is a more pressing priority. He believes the House will include his provision in one of its big budget bills, and it will be considered in a conference committee toward the end of the legislative session.
Stang proposes eventually to replace the funding for anti-smoking programs as the state receives additional funding from the tobacco settlement.
Health Commissioner Malcolm thinks it's short-sighted to kill off a promising program. The Target Market program, for example, shows students how they are targeted by tobacco companies even though they're too young to smoke legally, and encourages them to protest being targeted.
The ``document tour,'' a display contained in a semi-truck trailer that visited the Maplewood middle school Monday, has traveled throughout the state last fall and this spring. Along with other activities, such as recording a hip-hop compact disc, it's meant to appeal especially to students who are most at risk of developing a smoking habit, said executive director Alana Christensen.
Other statewide programs in danger of being cut give technical assistance to local anti-smoking efforts, focus on at-risk populations and develop curriculum for use by schools, Malcolm said.
As for the medical school's needs vs. Ventura's budget proposal, she said, ``The governor certainly did not fund their full request, but he funded their top priority.''
That is $16 million over two years to stabilize the core education program for doctors. The first half would come from the state's general fund, and the second half from new tobacco settlement funds. The medical school's other needs could be met internally by shifting money from lesser priorities, she said.