Sorrell, Douglas disagree on tobacco fund use

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(Host) Attorney General William Sorrell says the Douglas administration has shortchanged anti-smoking programs in next year’s budget. The attorney general says it doesn’t make sense to cut the programs just as they’re beginning to work.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) As attorney general, Sorrell helped negotiate the settlement that brings Vermont about 24 million dollars a year from tobacco companies. He’s also member of a state review board that oversees how Vermont spends the tobacco settlement money.

Sorrell went to the Statehouse on Monday to call on lawmakers to reverse the administration’s proposed two million dollar cut in tobacco control programs:

(Sorrell) “The truth of the matter is, and the sad truth is, is that if the Douglas administration has its way, our efforts to combat tobacco in this state are going to be gutted. And that is so unfortunate.”

(Dillon) Even before the proposed cuts, the state used tobacco settlement money for health care and other programs. But if the new cuts are approved, funding for the tobacco control program will drop to $2.9 million next year – down from $6.5 million two years ago.

The administration plans to use some of the tobacco settlement funds for the new DETER program, which is designed to help keep young people away from drugs. Sorrell says if Governor Douglas wants to launch a new program, he should find a different revenue source.

(Sorrell) “When you look at a more than a 50% cut in a program that is designed to deal with the greatest avoidable public health problem that we face in this state, the one that accounts for so many times the number of deaths annually than opiates and alcohol cause, you’d think that the tobacco industry was putting this budget together. And I just don’t think we should stand for it.”

(Dillon) But administration officials defend their budget choices by noting that the DETER program will deliver a strong anti-addiction message to students. Jason Gibbs is press secretary for Governor Jim Douglas.

(Gibbs) “According to the attorney general’s own statistics, 90% of adult smokers are addicted to tobacco by their eighteenth birthday. That underscores the significance and the importance of the student assistance element of the DETER program. Part of the money that’s being used, part of the tobacco settlement money that’s being used in DETER, will be used to put a substance abuse counselor in every junior and senior high school in Vermont.”

(Dillon) The tobacco control programs have been running for just two years. Members of the tobacco review board say if the funding is cut, the state will have to slash anti-smoking education efforts.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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