The tobacco prevention agency was on the chopping block in both outgoing governor Jack Dalrymple's budget and current governor Doug Burgum's.

The North Dakota House voted Tuesday to defund Breathe ND, the anti-smoking agency which was created by voter initiative in 2008.

The agency’s responsibilities will become those of the state Department of Health, though with fewer employees and an as of now unknown budget. Breathe ND is operating under a budget of $11.1M for the 2016-’17 biennium, though the agency’s budget dropped steeply from $7.46M in ‘16 to $3.65M in ‘17.

Liz Bonney, tobacco prevention coordinator at the Lake Region District Health Unit, says that the end of Breathe ND’s funding is unrelated to the agency’s success.

“Obviously we’re disappointed in the outcome of the legislation,” Bonney said. “Breathe ND is one of the most successful public health programs in the state of North Dakota.”

Bonney points to numbers provided by Breathe ND, which indicate that 11.7 percent of high school students surveyed reported smoking in 2015 compared to 22.4 percent in 2009. The number of adults who reported smoking between 2011 and 2015 dropped from 21.9 percent to 18.7 percent.

The tobacco prevention agency was on the chopping block in both outgoing governor Jack Dalrymple’s budget and current governor Doug Burgum’s.

Burgum is expected to sign the bill when it crosses his desk.

Bonney indicated that the short-term budget reality that led to the defunding of Breathe ND may have long-term implications if smoking numbers again rise.

“For every person who begins smoking and continues to smoke, it costs the state of North Dakota approximately $158,000,” Bonney said. “The state is picking up a medical bill of about $325 million annually to cover those people who have smoking-related diseases and can’t pay their medical bills. That goes right back on the public.”

The Centers for Disease Control reports that, nationwide, smoking-related health care costs amount to nearly $170 billion per year.

Though Bonney reports that her staff is puzzled and dismayed by the bill’s passage, she says that the agency will carry forward with its mission as the future of tobacco prevention in the state becomes more clear.

“We are still going to work as hard as we can locally to continue our strong efforts, particularly with our youth,” Bonney said. “As disappointed as we are, we want to forge ahead in a positive fashion.

“This wasn’t about a program not working. We’re all sitting here scratching our heads (over) this decision.”