- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The director of North Dakota’s tobacco prevention agency appealed Wednesday to state lawmakers to keep the agency intact, saying it has contributed to lowering smoking rates among youth and adults.

“We made a lot of progress to reduce tobacco use in our state, but there is still more work to be done,” Jeanne Prom, director of the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We need you to fund our agency.”

The center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy, or BreatheND, is under threat of closure, with former Gov. Jack Dalrymple recommending last month that it be dissolved and its efforts be shifted to the state Health Department, which also has tobacco prevention programs.

The idea appears to have strong support from many in the Republican-led Legislature, which believes the agency mirrors anti-tobacco efforts by the Health Department.

“I think you can make the case that it’s duplicative,” said Sen. Raymon Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will decide later whether to dissolve the agency. Its recommendation will be followed by a Senate vote.

The center was created in 2008, almost a decade after the state accepted money in a settlement of a multistate lawsuit against the country’s largest tobacco companies. In 2008, voters approved a measure to use a percentage of the tobacco settlement funds to develop a comprehensive program to discourage smoking, smokeless tobacco chewing and other forms of tobacco use.

Data show the agency, which was formed after voters’ approval, has received $94.2 million since 2009, and will receive a final payment in April of about $11 million.

The agency has eight employees and a current two-year budget of about $16.5 million, but has asked for $18.2 million for the next two-year budget cycle.

Prom, who is paid $105,368 annually, also had served as the director of the Health Department’s tobacco prevention program before taking over BreatheND. She said in an interview that the agencies complement each other but that BreatheND has the sole purpose of reducing tobacco use, “especially through prevention.”

If the agency’s budget survives the Senate, the House will be a bigger obstacle, GOP leaders said.

“Never say never, but I’d be very surprised if it got through here,” said Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, the chairman of the North Dakota House’s Appropriations Committee.

Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo said the state is committed to reducing tobacco use in the state.

“Anti-tobacco programs are not going to cease - they are just going to be done by a different agency,” Carson said.

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