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Published: Wednesday, 5/7/2008

Ohio legislators dismantle tobacco prevention agency


COLUMBUS - Gov. Ted Strickland yesterday pounded the last nail into the coffin of the state's quasigovernment anti-smoking agency that dared to defy lawmakers' plans to take the bulk of its money to help pay for a $1.57 billion economic stimulus package.

The governor signed a bill ensuring the Ohio Tobacco Prevention Foundation no longer would exist when a judge holds a hearing tomorrow on the foundation's lawsuit seeking to stop the money grab. The foundation's board had tried unsuccessfully to transfer $190 million of its money to a private anti-smoking organization based in Washington to put it beyond the reach of the Democratic governor and Republican-controlled General Assembly.

"Once the agency ceases to exist, it will have a difficult time being able to sue us,'' Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati) said shortly before the Senate voted 29-3 to kill the quasigovernmental body. The House overwhelmingly passed the bill last week.

The measure takes $230 million from the foundation's coffers for the jobs package and sends the last $40 million to the Departmental of Health to continue the state's anti-smoking efforts, albeit on a much smaller scale.

"The wellness of the people of Ohio is a jobs issue, an economic issue. They are not separate,'' said Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls), one of the three negative votes. He argued that the state had reneged on the commitment it made to Ohioans to use part of its national settlement with tobacco companies to fight smoking.

Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Vandalia), however, challenged Mr. Coughlin's suggestion that a government bureaucracy will not be able to fight smoking better than the quasigovernmental foundation.

"If I had hundreds of millions to spend, I could manage to spend some of that money effectively ,'' he said. "The money still belonged to the people. They treated it callously as their own property.''

Brian Sanders, project director of the Tobacco Treatment Center at The Toledo Hospital, said its anti-smoking counseling services will continue, and that the center will seek other sources of funding in the wake of the foundation's demise.

"The [center] remains committed to treating patients who are ready to quit all forms of tobacco,'' he said. "We offer individual and group counseling programs that are facilitated by certified treatment specialists.''

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