The Oregon Legislature took action to overcome budget deficits late last week that gutted Hood River County’s tobacco prevention program — and stripped away the services of its premiere grant writer.
On Friday afternoon Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention Coordinator Maija Yasui learned that the Joint Ways and Means Committee had followed Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s lead by reallocating $4 million from prevention programs into the general fund. That move has eliminated funding for Yasui’s position with the Hood River County Commission on Children and Families. Her efforts have helped lower the local tobacco use rate among eighth grade students from almost 30 percent in 1996 to less than five percent currently — and saved $1 million in overall tobacco-related health care costs within the county during that same time period.
Ironically, the lost $4 million of prevention dollars is slightly less than the amount of grant funding that Yasui netted for the county last year by tackling reams of paperwork to benefit the library and other human service agencies.
Lynae Hansen, head of Cascade Locks Interested in Kids, said Yasui’s tireless dedication was evidenced in the summer of 2001 when she was laid up with a back injury but still managed to draw up the forms that helped the community capture a $400,000 federal grant to battle against drug use.
“Maija is just a prize, she has had a hand in writing almost every grant that Hood River County has received,” said Hansen.
The actual date that Yasui will join her peers across the state in the unemployment line has not yet been confirmed, but will either be April 1 or May 1. Although the legislature has stated its intent to try to restore the prevention program in the next biennium budget, beginning on July 1, Yasui said it is unlikely that will happen because of continuing shortfalls.
“In Hood River County we’ve done some tremendous things but every indication is that if this program is cut now it won’t be coming back,” Yasui said.
The statewide Tobacco Prevention and Education Program is credited for saving 1,800 lives within the last six years, as well as reducing the number of eighth grade smokers by 41 percent and 11th graders by 21 percent, and helping 75,000 adults quit smoking. That encouragement and assistance will no longer be just a dial away since the Oregon Tobacco Quitline will also be shut down.
The Oregon Chapter American Heart Association tabulates that the state prevention and education programs save $450 million each year in state health care and business costs. That information is being incorporated into the Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon’s (TOFCO) campaign to restore the lost funding. The partnership of 400 businesses, organizations and individual advocates, has mounted a grassroots effort to demand that state officials honor the will of voters who approved funding for prevention activities in cigarette tax hikes on Measure 44 in 1996 and Measure 20 in 2002. TOFCO contends the recent action by the legislature violates that directive from citizens and is ethically wrong. Dr. Don Austin, TOFCO chair, recently issued a blistering statement about having these programs placed on the chopping block.
“When Oregonians voted to raise the tobacco tax, they were promised that part of the tax would be earmarked for tobacco prevention. For legislators to reallocate these funds now — going against the wishes of Oregon voters — is an outrage and a betrayal,” he said.
TOFCO is urging citizens to contact the governor’s office at (503) 377-3111 or to email representative.citizen@ state.or.us and demand that prevention programs be reinstated. They said a citizen outcry could keep a literally “life-sustaining” program in action.
“If you have a law in place and there is no one willing to protect it then it becomes moot,” said Yasui, who doesn’t have time these days to worry much about her uncertain future since she is finalizing seven separate grant forms that could restore some of the $35,000 funding lost by HRCCCF through this year, with the possibility of more budget losses on the horizon.