TALLAHASSEE --- Nearly 12 years after Florida voters overwhelmingly agreed to guarantee funding for an anti-smoking advertising and education campaign, a state panel this week approved a proposal that would ask Floridians to reconsider the commitment when they go to the polls in November.
By a 3-2 vote, the Finance and Tax Committee of the Constitution Revision Commission backed a proposal that would eliminate from the state Constitution a requirement that 15 percent of the funds from a landmark tobacco settlement be used for Tobacco Free Florida. The proposal would instead direct money toward cancer research.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association testified against the proposal, offered by state Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who serves on the Constitution Revision Commission.
Also opposed was 57-year-old Patricia Beall, a longtime smoker with terminal cancer and a life expectancy prognosis of between eight and 18 months.
“If there had been advertising geared toward me as a youngster that showed how stupid, unhealthy and uncool it was to smoke, I’d like to think I’d pay attention,” she said. “My parents certainly preached that to me, but it wasn’t enough.”
Chris Smith, a Constitution Revision Commission member and former state lawmaker, said he is sympathetic to the people who spoke. However, he said he didn’t think it was appropriate to place spending requirements for an advertising and education campaigns in the state Constitution. Smith said he considers each proposed constitutional amendment by asking himself the question: “Can this be done legislatively?”
“This can’t be done legislatively because you are taking something out of the Constitution,” he said, explaining his support for Nunez’s proposed amendment Thursday.
The Constitution Revision Commission meets 20 years and can put proposed constitutional amendments directly on the November ballot. The tobacco proposal would have to be approved by the full commission before going to voters.
American Heart Association lobbyist Rivers Buford said Florida voters had already weighed in on the tobacco issue and stressed the importance of having the money for advertising.
“For those of you that are elected officials or have been elected officials, you know that 60-plus percent of your campaign dollars are used to go to buy media, and that’s because it works. It gets your message out, and it’s received,” he said. “To cut that money for your campaign would cut your message of what you’re trying to get to your constituents. By doing it for this program also, you’re cutting the message that’s going out to the potential smokers to help them avoid smoking altogether.”
In August 1997, Florida entered into a landmark settlement with several big tobacco companies for past, present and future claims by the state, including reimbursement of Medicaid expenses, fraud, and punitive damages. As a result of that, the state launched an anti-smoking campaign that included edgy advertisements. Though initially funded at $70 million, the program was trimmed back to $39 million and then reduced to just $1 million by state fiscal year 2003-2004.
In 2006 voters overwhelmingly approved the constitutional amendment directing that 15 percent of the annual settlement funds be targeted to Tobacco Free Florida.
According to the Florida Department of Health, the anti-smoking initiative has been a success. In 2006, the adult smoking rate was 21 percent, and in 2015 it was 15.8 percent, the lowest it has ever been.
Fewer young people have started smoking since Tobacco Free Florida was created. The youth smoking rate has decreased from 10.6 percent in 2006 to 3 percent in 2016.
Nunez committed to continue to work with those who are opposed to the measure ”to perhaps see if we can come up with a solution that would be palatable to them.”