Federal Funding for DSHS Drug & Alcohol Programs Could Be Threatened By Rising Rate of Tobacco Sales to Kids

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According to the Washington State Department of Health, the rate of retailers illegally selling tobacco to kids has risen to its highest mark in more

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Federal Funding for DSHS Drug & Alcohol Programs Could Be Threatened By Rising Rate of Tobacco Sales to Kids

  • Federal Funding for DSHS Drug & Alcohol Programs Could Be Threatened By Rising Rate of Tobacco Sales to Kids

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    no_smoking mug.jpg
    According to the Washington State Department of Health, the rate of retailers illegally selling tobacco to kids has risen to its highest mark in more than a decade - clocking in at roughly 16-percent for 2012. This rate,which is calculated yearly, is based on random compliance checks carried out by local health agencies and the state Liquor Control Board from January to June.

    *See Also: State Reopens Tobacco Quitline to Uninsured, But Only Has Money to Do So for One Year

    What's the deal? At least in part, think of it as just one more crappy side-effect of a struggling economy.

    Washington State Health Department Office of Communications Manager Tim Church says that roughly 600 compliance checks were conducted in our state in the first half of 2012, and the rate of retailers selling tobacco to minors - approximately 16 percent - is calculated based on what they found. This means if exactly 600 compliance checks had been conducted, 96 retailers broke the law. Statewide, it's a significant jump, up from 11 percent in 2011 and 10 percent in 2010, according to state Health Department numbers.

    "This is unacceptable. Our young people should not have access to these deadly tobacco products," said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky in a press release distributed Wednesday.

    Church is quick to note that compliance rates tend to fluctuate up and down each year, and the latest figures may represent an anomaly rather than a trend. But he says the spike - which probably has many contributing factors - is almost certainly connected in one way or another to the faltering economy.

    For example, Church says retailers could be selling more tobacco to kids because the money Washington funnels toward tobacco prevention and education programs has all but dried up since the economic crapfest of 2008. The Health Department has had to ax its retailer tobacco education efforts because of it, and the department's school-based anti-tobacco education programs have also lost funding.

    Or, Church says, retailers might be risking the fines and possible license revocations because of the financial pressures on businesses to increase sales. "Stores are hurting just like anybody else," says Church, "so we're concerned that the economy might be causing some folks to sell tobacco because they need to keep their sales up."

    Either way, the economy isn't helping.

    To put the situation in perspective, Church says in the boom times of the state's anti-tobacco efforts, Washington spent $26.5 million in general fund dollars on things like its tobacco quit line, school-based education programs for kids, important retailer education programs for a profession with high turnover, and anti-tobacco advertising. Since 2008-2009, however, Church says that funding has "little by little" been cut to next to nothing. These days he says Washington scrapes its pockets for about $1 million in anti-tobacco spending, all of it going toward the Department of Health's newly reinstated tobacco quit line (spending that's only authorized through the end of the year).

    "From 2002 through 2009 we were investing, as a state, about $26.5 million in tobacco prevention. Approximately a third of that was going out to pay for programs in local communities, and some more was going out to schools," says Church. "Literally, all of that money has been cut now."

    Strange Connection

    One of the reasons the state is concerned with keeping the rate of retailers selling tobacco to kids low - aside from the obvious health reasons, which are undeniably genuine - is the federal money that's tied to the goal.

    It's federal funding that Church (non-begrudgingly) says doesn't have anything to do with the state's tobacco prevention efforts.

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    Here's how it works: If Washington exceeds a rate of 20 percent on the federally mandated annual survey of retailers selling tobacco to kids, the state puts itself at risk of losing $14 million in federal money for drug and alcohol abuse and treatment (though not automatically, and there is some gray area).

    Church says that $14 million goes to the state Department of Social and Health Services - DSHS - for drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment efforts, not tobacco prevention or education. For all intents and purposes, the programs are completely unrelated.

    "We do all the tobacco prevention [work] in the state," says Church of Washington's Department of Health.

    "It's a carrot-and-stick approach," he says of the federal government's incentivizing, admitting that connecting federal funding for DSHS's drug and alcohol abuse prevention and treatment efforts to the Department of Health's anti-tobacco work is a little awkward. "I'm not exactly sure why they get tied together," he says.

    In trying to answer that question on the fly, Church points out that in a number of states, health department-style tobacco prevention efforts and DSHS-style alcohol and drug abuse programs probably fall "under one roof." In Washington, however, that's not the case.

    Nope. We're stuck with a strange setup that ties federal funding for drug and alcohol abuse programs to the number of retailers selling tobacco to kids - a problem we haven't really had any money to battle in three or four years. It's a situation that seems precarious at best.

    What's the end result? At the very least, one can only assume it means there are a whole lot of folks at DSHS rooting for the Department of Health to keep the percentage of retailers selling tobacco to kids under 20 percent.

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