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Healthy Start faces cutbacks: Child advocates want additional tax on cigarettes to save program

With a 22 percent funding decrease threatening care for at-risk pregnant women and their children, Healthy Start Coalitions statewide have called for an increased tax on cigarettes to help keep the program running.

The proposed reduction would cut $9.2 million of Health Start’s $42.2 million annual budget, said Terry Walters of the Florida Department of Health.

The Florida House Appropriations Committee asked state health officials to reduce the department’s budget to help address a projected revenue shortfall of more than $6 billion. “This is just a budget exercise,” said Walters.

But the “exercise” has local Healthy Start officials worried.

The Healthy Start Coalition of Manatee County stands to lose more than $193,000 should the cuts go through, warns Fred Leonard, executive director.

Leonard said the cut could translate into less service for high-risk moms and their babies.

“A 22 percent cut in funding will mean we will be serving 731 fewer at-risk mothers and infants in the coming year than we do now,” said Leonard. “As it is, our current resources only allow us to serve half of those women and infants who are eligible.”

Leonard and other child advocates want Gov. Charlie Crist and lawmakers to forestall those cuts by closing a loophole in Florida’s tobacco settlement, which allows non-participating manufacturers to avoid paying the 45-cent per pack assessment charged to the nation’s three largest cigarette companies: Altria, Reynolds American and Lorillard, who were part of the tobacco agreement.

The Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions estimates that the loophole costs the state more than $90 million a year.

Smaller companies left out of the agreement sell brands such as 305s and Sport for as little as $1.67 a pack compared to $3.50 a pack for the major brands, says Leslie Spurlock, president of the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions in her letter sent to Crist on Jan. 26.

“Since the enactment of the settlement agreement, however, the market share of the smaller cigarette companies who were left outside the settlement has grown to as much as 20 percent,” Spurlock wrote.

She points out in her letter to Crist that the cheap brands are especially appealing to young and low-income smokers. That contributes to Florida’s soaring rate of low-birth weight babies, which in turn results in an infant death rate similar to a developing country, Spurlock said.

Her letter cites the following statistics:

n 20,767 low birth weight babies were born in Florida in 2007.

n One in four were expected to die before age 1.

n Medical costs to keep those infants alive average $141,000 per baby.

n Maternal smoking is a leading preventable cause of low birth weight and premature babies.

Increasing funds for Healthy Start by raising the cost of cigarettes only makes sense, says Leonard. Higher prices will in turn discourage smoking which will help improve pregnancy outcomes.

So far, Crist has not responded to Spurlock’s letter, a spokesman said. In the past, Crist has been opposed to increasing the cost of cigarettes because it represents a new tax.

Extending the 45-cent assessment to the discount cigarette companies would require lawmakers to pass another bill.

Another option, Leonard said, would be an additional tax on all cigarettes.

“If they make it part of the state budget, it wouldn’t require a separate bill, they can place a tax on any item,” Leonard said. “Wherever the money comes from, we need to maintain sufficient funding to serve at least the number of clients we served last year.”

In her letter to Crist, Spurlock said Florida cannot afford to reduce Health Start funding. “The irony of this situation is that it would cost much less to provide prenatal care and education, including smoking cessation services, to every woman who needs it than to pay the intensive care hospital bills of the babies who are born to mothers who received no care.”

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