Colorado Lawmakers Tighten Scrutiny Over Tobacco Monies

Published January 4, 2013

Troubled by the questionable use of tobacco-tax revenue on grants to fund advocacy for local smoking bans, Colorado lawmakers have decided to ask the Joint Budget Committee to make state health department officials—who disburse tobacco tax money—report those grants as budgetary line items for better tracking and oversight.

A legislative staff attorney, meanwhile, reaffirmed some of the funding allocated to push for tougher local anti-smoking laws wasn’t allowed under the 2004 tobacco-tax hike.

Last July, state auditors released an audit of the tobacco tax program and found that taxpayer funds from Amendment 35 tobacco taxes were being doled out beyond the scope of the statute. They believed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) may be violating the state constitution by using taxes intended for tobacco prevention and cessation programs on policy initiatives to ban smoking at the local level.

Three Different Initiatives

The audit reported that in 2010 and 2011, CDPHE granted $5.2 million to fund three different policy areas: initiatives meant to limit youth access to tobacco products; initiatives aimed at reducing second-hand smoke in multi-unit housing; and policy work related to expanding the reach of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act (CCIAA), a 2006 law that banned indoor smoking in public accommodations.

To clarify, the Legislative Audit Committee sought advice from their legal counsel to give the committee more information on whether what CDPHE was doing was legal or not.

For the 2013 calendar year, according to the Tobacco Education, Prevention, and Cessation Grant Program website, they have recommended $13,178,417 in funding to the state board of health for “Community Tobacco Initiatives” including nearly $2.5 million to the “Amendment 35 Program Evaluation Group” for “Evaluation and Surveillance.”

Dubious Spending

Senior Attorney Julie Pelegrin of the Office of Legislative Legal Services explained the policy initiatives funded with grants that were geared toward strengthening the provisions of the CCIAA at the local level likely were not legal.

“Unless it is specifically limited to low-income multi-unit housing, a policy initiative to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke in all multi-unit housing facilities would probably not be eligible under this statutory provision because there is no indication that all multi-unit housing complexes house persons with higher-than-average tobacco burdens,” Pelegrin said.

Pelegrin concluded since there was still confusion in the statute by the way the CDPHE understood it versus the way OLLS is reading it, then the LAC should clarify the statute.

“It appears as though we still have a very open-ended question here that has not been answered, and if it’s up to the legislature to clarify the statute, I think that’s the action that we need to take,” Rep. Angela Williams (D-Denver) said.

Sunana Batra ([email protected]) writes for the Colorado News Agency, where a version of this article first appeared. Used with permission.