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SWAT > News and Events > Bush pressured to boost fight against tobacco

By Diane Hirth

Pressure is growing on Gov. Jeb Bush to revive Florida's efforts to keep kids from getting the cigarette habit.

Anti-smoking activists on Tuesday demanded that the governor not only recommend at least $39 million next year for the prevention program - but also fight for it. Currently the state is spending $1 million to prevent children from becoming addicted to nicotine.

"We look to him to deliver on that promise," said Adrian Abner, a Florida A&M University student and former state chairman of Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT).

"If you look at the Florida report card on tobacco control, it's clear that Big Tobacco is still alive and well in the state of Florida," said Brenda Olsen, assistant chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of Florida.

Florida received two F's on the tobacco report card released Tuesday by the Lung Association - one for poor funding of the tobacco prevention program, reduced from its one-time high of $70 million, and the other for being 41st among the states in taxing tobacco. The state got a D for policing youth access to tobacco and a B for smoke-free air in public places.

Jim McDonough, director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control, countered: "We have a pretty good record on bringing tobacco use down."

He pointed to sharp drops in smoking by sixth- to 12th-graders in Florida. In the past three years, the number of middle-school students who said they regularly puffed on cigarettes fell from 12.5 percent to 6.8 percent, according to a state survey. For high schoolers, the number fell from 23.3 percent to 15.4 percent.

At the same time he acknowledged "that $1 million was a ridiculously low figure. It was almost like adding to the insult. I don't think it will stay at $1 million....I think Gov. Bush is fighting hard to bring it up."

Bush recommended $39 million for the program last year, but the Legislature appropriated $1 million.

Edgy TV ads gone

Florida's pilot tobacco prevention program was nationally acclaimed for its edgy TV ads that compared tobacco executives to mass murderers and for its activist SWAT teams.

But with the funding decrease went the tobacco control coordinators once assigned to every county in Florida. Gone is the $15 million marketing campaign. Vanished as well are $7 million for classroom materials and $1 million to help minority communities kick the tobacco habit.

Only some areas still have active SWAT chapters, though there will be a statewide SWAT summit in February.

"We do not have SWAT here," confirmed Damon Sullivan, school resource officer at RAA Middle School.

The money comes from tobacco companies, which agreed in the 1997 settlement with Florida to pay $13 billion over 25 years to compensate taxpayers for smoking-related Medicaid costs. This year's tobacco funds for Florida are almost $400 million. Most of it is being used for other health programs.

'A work in progress'

Four months after all state agencies submitted their budget requests for fiscal 2004, the Department of Health remains silent on what increase it will recommend to the governor for the tobacco prevention program. The governor's proposed budget is due later this month.

Calling future funding a "work in progress," Health Department Secretary John Agwunobi said Tuesday, "I recognize and acknowledge that $1 million is not enough to maintain and develop a tobacco prevention program."

State Sen. Durrell Peaden, R-Crestview, a doctor and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, says he will be looking for a redesigned, modestly priced tobacco prevention program that concentrates on anti-smoking education - student to student and teacher to pupil.

"We need to invest in (anti-tobacco) education...not blow it on advertising," Peaden said.