Budget cuts may lead to more smokers

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – For Oregon anti-tobacco advocates, there had been plenty to celebrate in the past few years.

State numbers show that a full 75,000 Oregonians have quit smoking cigarettes since 1996, when voters first increased tobacco taxes. And among Oregon’s middle-schoolers, smoking has declined 51 percent since then, after stepped-up campaigns on the dangers of smoking.

But now, anti-tobacco activists are worried that declines in tobacco use are slowing.

The state’s prevention budget is one-third of what it was two years ago, as legislators cut the tobacco prevention budget to help pay for other health care programs.

In 1996, Oregon voters agreed to increase the cigarette tax by 30 cents to help pay for the Oregon Health Plan. The vote mandated that the state spend 10 percent of that money on tobacco-use prevention.

With a statewide two-year budget of about $20 million, every Oregon county had a cessation and education coordinator and multiple programs. The state office designated more than 12 full-time positions to work on a quit-line and other programs.

But that entire budget was cut to zero in early 2003 as the Legislature struggled to pay for the Oregon Health Plan. The prevention program was reinstated six months later, but with one-third of the money that it was supposed to receive.

Dozens of trained staff were laid off and few returned.

Stephanie Anderson Stroup was the Deschutes County coordinator when the program was shut down.

"The thing that I noticed the most was when the quit line was canceled," she said. "There wasn’t anywhere to call to get help. If they thought to call the county, [staff members] could only say, ‘We don’t have a tobacco-prevention program.’"

According to Erik Vidstrand, health educator for Multnomah County Tobacco Prevention Program and director of NW Doctors Ought to Care, progress was being made in other areas before the changes.

Six Asian grocers volunteered to become pilot stores by raising the height of tobacco advertising and products out of the sight and reach of children. He had been hoping to expand the practice to the 300 members of a Korean grocers’ association.

"I don’t think the Legislature understood what it takes to build capacity," Vidstrand said. "It’s not like we were sitting here mailing out brochures. It takes time to build relationships with communities, particularly minority communities."

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed spending $5.2 million on tobacco prevention in the new budget. If the Legislature followed the 10 percent requirement, spending would increase to about $15 million, said Karen Main, director of the program.

A handful of legislators, including House Minority Leader Rep. Jeff Merkley, say they will push to fully fund tobacco-use prevention.

The American Lung Association recently gave Oregon a failing grade for its tobacco prevention budget. The lung association cites a study from the Journal of Health Economics that shows four states – Oregon, Arizona, California and Massachusetts – invested heavily in tobacco-use prevention during the 1990s.

Tobacco use fell an average of 43 percent in those states, compared to a 20 percent average in the other states.

California’s declines stopped in 1994 when prevention money was cut, according to the association. In Massachusetts, illegal sales of tobacco to minors increased at least 74 percent after prevention-program reductions.