Assemblyman Richard Pan, a physician, probably didn’t think his legislation would threaten one of California’s true public health success stories.
But the California Department of Public Health has read the letter of Pan’s law, Assembly Bill 906. Advocated by public employee unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Pan’s bill seeks to force state departments to use state workers whenever possible.
Citing that measure, state health officers are contemplating ending contracts with nongovernmental organizations that have spent years fighting the tobacco industry, and have succeeded.
A board that oversees California’s tobacco control program was so alarmed by the department’s review that it convened an emergency meeting. The issue will be the focus of another meeting of the Tobacco Education Research Oversight Committee on Wednesday.
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Less than 13 percent of Californians smoke, a lower percentage than any state besides Utah. By the state’s own estimate, the tobacco control effort, adopted by a 1988 initiative that raised tobacco taxes by 25 cents per pack, has averted a million tobacco-related deaths, and saved the state $130 billion in health care costs.
Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, no doubt was playing to his base, state workers, by carrying the legislation. His goal may be laudable. The state should use civil servants whenever possible.
But sometimes, state civil servants do not have the expertise that private workers have. For example, when UCLA decided to go tobacco free, it called on one of the contractors to help make the campaign a success. Another contract being scrutinized now provides a clearinghouse for tobacco education information.
California’s tobacco control effort is working. The Department of Public Health should not try to fix what’s not broken.