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Tobacco Funding Fight Extinguished

Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez.
The News Service of Florida
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A smoldering controversy over Florida’s landmark tobacco settlement and how money should be spent has been snuffed out.

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, said Thursday she will no longer push a proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated a requirement that the state set aside 30 percent of overall tobacco-education and prevention funding for an edgy advertising and marketing campaign.

“I don’t ever want to call myself ‘fat,’ but I’m singing. I’m done,” Nunez, R-Miami, told The News Service of Florida.

Nunez’s remarks come after the commission, which has the power to place potential constitutional amendments on the November ballot, did not approve the proposal while meeting this week in Tallahassee.

Anti-smoking groups that have lobbied fiercely against the proposal, though, aren’t letting their guard down. “We don’t want to assume anything with regard to the process they are following,” Protect Tobacco Free Florida spokeswoman Heather Youmans said in a prepared statement.

The Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, has unique authority to place proposed constitutional amendments directly on the ballot. The commission this week voted to move forward with 25 proposed amendments and send them to its “Style and Drafting” committee. That committee has key duties such as finding ways to consolidate proposals with similar themes and writing ballot summaries.

Proposals emerging from the committee then will go back to the full Constitution Revision Commission for final votes. They need support from 22 of the 37 members to go on the November ballot.

Commission rules make clear that the Style and Drafting Committee can only consider proposals that have been backed by the full commission. When asked whether the tobacco-money proposal was dead, Style and Drafting Committee Chairman, Brecht Heuchan told The News Service of Florida “yes.”

Nunez said she sponsored the amendment because she doesn’t think it’s appropriate that the Constitution include required spending amounts for any program, including the anti-tobacco campaign.

Voters put the tobacco-spending mandate in the Constitution in 2006 after the Legislature drastically scaled back funding for the advertising campaign. The advertising campaign is funded from a multibillion-dollar settlement that the state reached in 1997 with the tobacco industry.

Nunez on Tuesday asked that a vote by the full commission on her proposal be delayed after she spent more than an hour answering questions about what the amendment would do and why she wants to add it to the Constitution.

Some of the toughest questions came from Commissioner Lisa Carlton, a former state senator who told Nunez that there wasn’t any public support for the proposal during public hearings held across the state.

Instead, groups such as Protect Tobacco Free Florida, which is comprised of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association, got volunteers to attend the public meetings to oppose the proposal, along with sending thousands of emails opposing it.

“Where’s the groundswell telling us that we need to change something that was passed (in 2006) by the people by the super majority of the people?” Carlton asked Nunez. “Where’s the groundswell? Help me understand that.”

While Nunez acknowledged that she didn’t have the “firepower” of those organizations, she said she isn’t alone in her thoughts.

“What I will tell you, is there is something to be said about the silent majority,” Nunez said, adding that when she speaks with people who voted for the 2006 amendment they are unaware of the spending mandate for marketing.

“Their comments, and I’m not saying they’re right, but their comments are, ‘Oh that was probably some big ad agency that got that in there that are wanting to dupe the public,’ ’’ Nunez said.

State records show that companies such as Altria Client Services, the parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, and Miami-based Dosal Tobacco Corporation hired lobbyists to lobby the commission.

“I haven’t had one conversation with one tobacco lobbyist on that proposal or any other proposal,” Nunez said.

Along with the tobacco-advertising issue, the commission has considered a separate Carlton proposal that would ban electronic cigarettes and other types of vaping in workplaces, similar to the state’s smoking ban. Tobacco companies such as Philip Morris have moved into the electronic-cigarette business in recent years.

Nunez told Carlton that the tobacco-advertising amendment would allow the Legislature to review the program to ensure that it works efficiently. When Carlton --- a former Senate budget chief --- said the Legislature could conduct a review without a change to the Constitution, Nunez again countered, noting that if the review found wasted spending, “there would be nothing the Legislature could do.”

But Carlton, who spent 14 years in the Legislature, said that wasn’t the case and said that as a lawmaker, Nunez had the power to file a proposed constitutional change if there “was something wrong with the way the dollars were being spent.”

According to the Florida Department of Health, the anti-smoking initiative has been a success. In 2006, the adult smoking rate was 21 percent, and in 2015 it was 15.8 percent, the lowest it has ever been. Fewer young people have started smoking since the Tobacco Free Florida program was created. The youth smoking rate has decreased from 10.6 percent in 2006 to 3 percent in 2016.