Budget cuts leave WV Tobacco Prevention Office with one employee

AP file photo

With its $3.03 million annual state appropriation zeroed out of the 2017-18 state budget, the West Virginia Division of Tobacco Prevention is in the process of terminating all but one position in the eight-person office, division director Jim Kerrigan confirmed Tuesday.

Kerrigan, who will be the only remaining employee, said he’s trying to keep two key programs going, at least in some form.

“We’re hoping to keep the Quitline going, and hoping to keep RAZE going,” he said Tuesday.

Quitline is a tobacco-cessation hotline partially funded by the state, which provides nicotine-replacement therapies and other cessation programs. RAZE is an anti-tobacco education program aimed at teenagers.

With no funding in the 2017-18 budget, Kerrigan said the division is operating on state funds that carried over from the previous budget year, and on federal grants.

“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “We’re going to do the best that we can.”

Pending approval of the reduction in force by the state Personnel Board, the division will eliminate the positions of Cessation Program manager and coordinator, Clean Indoor Air Program manager and coordinator, Youth Program manager and coordinator, and division secretary.

Kerrigan said he’s hopeful the seven employees will be able to transfer into other positions in the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Representatives of anti-tobacco organizations said Tuesday the dismantling of the Tobacco Prevention Office is disheartening.

“It’s not a good thing, because we continue to have the highest youth smoking rate and the second-highest adult smoking rate in the nation,” said Juliana Frederick Curry, of the state chapter of the American Cancer Society.

“We really can’t afford to have cuts to critical tobacco education and cessation programs,” she said. “It’s something we’re extremely disappointed to see happen.”

Christine Compton, of the state chapter of the American Heart Association, said the cuts make the association’s mission of reducing tobacco-related heart disease more difficult.

“We’re completely eliminating the department whose sole purpose was to educate people about tobacco and prevent tobacco use,” she said.

Compton said health advocates had requested a meeting with the Governor’s Office over the elimination of the division’s funding, but without success.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Calling it a “travesty,” Gov. Jim Justice allowed the $4.225 billion 2017-18 state budget bill to become law without his signature, effective June 24, saying a veto would have assured a partial government shutdown beginning July 1.

“If I had time, I’d veto this in an absolute millisecond,” Justice said at the time. “There’s no way that this should not be vetoed, but there’s no time, and it’s a terrible change, because it’s going to hurt a lot of people.”

The budget cuts state spending by $85 million from the 2016-17 state budget, and is more than $185 million less than the budget plan Justice proposed.

Curry said the short-term savings by eliminating funding for Tobacco Prevention will likely be far offset by future health care costs for individuals who either take up smoking or are unable to quit, because the lack of tobacco education and cessation programs.

“We’re all putting our heads together to see what we can do to keep things afloat so there isn’t such a gap in education and prevention,” she said.

Kerrigan said a specific date for the termination of the seven positions has not been set.

“Nothing’s been set in stone yet,” he said. “We’re still working out the details.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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