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Forum editorial: BreatheND obvious success

A scheme in the North Dakota Legislature to usurp funding and dilute functions of BreatheND is wrong-headed on several counts.

First, the agency, also known as the N.D. Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, is funded by money from the national tobacco settlement of 1998. North Dakota was a major player in that successful lawsuit against Big Tobacco. The upshot: BreatheND's budget contains not a dime of appropriated taxpayer money. Legislative leaders want to get their paws on the tobacco money and do who-knows-what with it.

Second, 90 percent of tobacco settlement money already is diverted to water and education funding, which lawmakers control. That compromise formula left 10 percent of the annual settlement payments for the money's original purpose. The settlement also grants North Dakota additional payments from a "strategic contribution fund" that enhance and extend anti-tobacco efforts by the agency. Voters overwhelmingly approved a 2008 measure that requires the final nine of the payments be used only for comprehensive tobacco programs. Legislators can raid that money because enough years have passed since the measure passed. Should that happen, the will of the voters would be upended.

Third, if efficiency, fiscal responsibility and program efficacy are the mantras of this legislative session (and Gov. Doug Burgum's revisioning of state government), then lawmakers can hold up BreatheND as the poster child for those virtues. The agency is small, well-managed, focused from the beginning on its mission and can show measurable results. The impressive staff is fiercely dedicated to tobacco prevention and education, and have used their relatively small portion of tobacco settlement monies to achieve promised results. For example, the smoking rate among North Dakota youth was over 22 percent when BreathND went to work; today, it's down to about 11 percent. In 2012, voters passed a statewide smoke-free law, largely because of the agency's advocacy. Three years later, the Legislature approved e-cigarette youth protection, also listening to BreatheND's warnings about the nicotine-delivery devices' danger to kids.

Therefore, it is absurd that lawmakers who are deeply concerned about expenditures, budget cuts, government efficiency and revenue shortfalls should lust after unappropriated dollars that have been used with uncommon stewardship, precisely for the purpose for which they were intended.

The legislation to kill BreathND has one purpose: to close a small shop that does big work. The bill ignores success and threatens the health of North Dakotans. In effect, lawmakers are doing the bidding of Big Tobacco. That's a very bad way to go.

Editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board.

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