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Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby, began his floor comments in March by saying he "hates funerals" as he spoke against eliminating the BreatheND program. Nelson also suggested an increase in the tax on tobacco products was necessary. 

Nearly the last step was taken by the North Dakota House on Tuesday to defund BreatheND, the state's tobacco prevention and control agency created by an initiated measure in 2008.

Senate Bill 2024 passed on a 63-29 vote after more than 40 minutes of debate on the House floor. It must yet be signed by Gov. Doug Burgum.

Several state representatives defended BreatheND, by pointing to a drop in adult and youth smoking rates in the state since the agency's inception.

"I hate funerals, and today we're here to eulogize probably the most effective state agency I've seen in my 20 years in the Legislature," said Rep. Jon Nelson, R-Rugby.

The bill repeals a chapter of state law creating BreatheND, which was funded by a settlement states reached with big tobacco companies in 1998.

Some representatives in support of the agency said the bill goes against the wishes of North Dakota residents, who voted to create a tobacco prevention and control program.

"BreatheND was an initiated measure. It did go counter to the legislative desires, certainly, but the people of North Dakota voted for it," Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, said on the floor.

Jeanne Prom, executive director of BreatheND, sat in the House balcony with other agency employees and those who work for similar anti-tobacco organizations, watching the vote.

“What I heard from the other side was, 'I hope.' 'I think.' 'Let’s see.' 'Let’s wait two years,'” Prom said. “We have a proven track record, and why, at this point in our state’s budget, when we’re looking at effective government, are we shutting down an extremely effective agency that gets the job done and saves taxpayers’ dollars?"

The House Appropriations Committee gave the bill a "do pass" recommendation on a 16-4 vote Monday after an amendment in support of the agency failed. The Senate passed the bill last month. 

BreatheND's eight full-time employees will lose their jobs, effective June 30, and, instead, one full-time employee will be added to the state Health Department.

Some legislators who supported the measure said it would save the state money by transferring work to employees at the Health Department.

“What we’re saying is (the Health Department is) going to be able to do the same work with those dollars,” Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, said.

Some lawmakers said the effectiveness of the tobacco prevention and control program in the state, which has received high ratings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will slide once the agency is repealed.

"I don't think there's any question that our program is going to take a step backwards in the state," said Nelson, who called for representatives to include amendments in the Health Department's budget currently being reviewed in the House in order to monitor whether the transfer has an impact on smoking rates.

Prom said she and her agency will continue to advocate for anti-smoking in the Legislature, including recently proposed legislation to establish state-run casinos that includes a section to allow lawmakers to consider allowing smoking in these facilities.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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