The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

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By Anna Marie Gott

The City of Santa Barbara received $878,127.00 in grant funds last year through the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Tax Act of 2016 and plans to accept another grant Tuesday for $189,341.00.  The purpose of the Tobacco Tax funds related to this grant were to: reduce smoking and tobacco use among all Californians, but particularly youth, support prevention programs aimed at discouraging individuals from using cigarettes and other tobacco products, and to implement programs to reduce illegal sales of tobacco products to minors, cigarette smuggling and tax evasion. The Attorney General’s Office manages these funds to support “programs that include, but are not limited to, enforcing state laws and local ordinances relating to illegal sales of tobacco products to minors, marketing…to minors, increasing investigative activities and compliance checks to reduce illegal sales…to minors and youth.” This includes youth outreach, and preventing or discouraging smoking on school campuses. The reason? Nicotine addiction is very hard to escape and many minors will become addicted for their lifetime if they start using nicotine before age 18. – I should know, my father started smoking as a teenager and was never able to quit. His addiction to nicotine contributed to his death.

The Goals and Objectives of the first grant were to: conduct a comprehensive public awareness campaign to help residents and visitors understand the City’s new smoking law, reduce youth access to tobacco related products and improve enforcement in problem areas in the Downtown corridor where families and youth were often said to be present. - Besides enforcement for smoking other add on “services” were included in the grant application.

What’s interesting to me is the amount of funds allocated for certain activities, where they were allocated to and the activities performed. The majority of money budgeted went to salaries and benefits for the Ambassador Program (~$317,680.00) and Police Enforcement (~$305,966.00) while the rest was spent on Administrative Costs, Operating Expenses, and Other Expenses(~$250,045.00). This doesn’t seem to be out of the norm until you look at what Ambassador’s do day to day and then compare how other cities used Tobacco Tax grants for personnel: in school-based education activities, at community education events,  enforcing tobacco retailer laws or hiring school resource officers.

Why? The Ambassador Program doesn’t seem to be designed to prevent or discourage local minors from smoking or using tobacco products which I would expect it to do. Instead the Ambassadors focus on “tapping”’ tourists, transients, and random locals Downtown on the shoulder to inform them that smoking in public places is not permitted. The estimated cost per “tap” in Q1 was $36.44! This equates to ~11 “taps” per day given the City’s Q1 report.

“Tapping” shoulders to enforce the City’s smoking “ban” isn’t all the Ambassadors do. From 9am to 10pm 7 days a week, Ambassadors walk in pairs along a 14 block stretch of State Street to serve as the liaisons between State Street merchants, property owners and the City. The majority of their time is spent “[engaging] with businesses and visitors to address behavior, maintenance, and aesthetics [issues].” Behavior issues include alcohol consumption, loitering and other nuisance issues. – These add on "services" are paid for by the Tobacco Tax and were included in the grant application as the range of activities the Ambassadors would engage in. However, it appears that they spend most of their time engaged in activities unrelated to smoking which is why change is needed.

One of the newest and fastest-growing teenage trends is the use of e-cigarettes, also known as vaping. Anecdotal evidence suggests that minors primarily vape or smoke in private homes with or without their parents' permission. These parents are unaware that some brands contain twice the amount of nicotine found in cigarettes or that nicotine is just as addictive as heroin. What is more disturbing is that some parents reportedly purchase Juuls or similar products for their children at local convenience stores. - This indicates that parent education is in dire need, rather than continued funding for Ambassadors to circle State Street.

With school out for the summer there will be more minors on State Street where the Ambassadors are positioned. But chances are, the majority of minors found there will be tourists. Where will local minors be found? My guess is that the majority will be found at local beaches, parks, at various clubs, camps and local teen centers, or in private homes - none of which are patrolled by the Ambassadors.

I voted in favor of the Tobacco Tax because it sought to reduce and prevent smoking and the use of other tobacco related products. I didn’t vote for or expect the funds to be used for other “services.” 

If residents want to prevent a new generation of local teenagers from becoming addicted to nicotine the Ambassador Program must be changed now. To better fulfill the purpose of the Tobacco Tax the Ambassadors should immediately be re-deployed to other areas of the City and be trained to provide educational services to parents, pre-teens and teens to prevent and discourage smoking and vaping.

Ambassadors could immediately begin patrolling local beaches and parks, and perform outreach to youth camps and clubs. They could also provide educational services directed at parents. During the school year Ambassadors could patrol areas like Milpas, where hundreds of students leave campus for lunch or the day, and where I’ve seen dozens vaping during the afternoon. They could also work with school administrators to provide educational outreach to parents during local parent teacher conferences or events.  

What do you think? Does it sound like the Ambassadors need to be re-deployed to better serve local minors?  If you think the money needs to be reallocated I urge you attend Tuesday’s Council meeting at 2pm and email the City Council to weigh in on this important fiscal and public policy issue before Tuesday: [email protected]

When: 2PM on Tuesday, June 18th.

Where: City Hall
             735 Anacapa St, 2nd Floor

Agenda: Item #2 Tobacco Grant

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Factotum Jun 17, 2019 02:42 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

Tobacco tax also funds First Five, another high administrative cost - low results mission creep operation. Pretending tobacco tax money is reducing smoking means there will less tobaccos tax cash flow for the government administrators, now dependent on these very same tobacco tax dollars.. See how it works when "tax dollars" are used to hire people to hand out free stuff? Continued employment of fund administrators and mission creep takes over the original intent of the tax initiative. Worst outcome possible today for the use of tobacco tax dollars is people actually quit smoking. All of these feel-good tax initiative should have a time-certain sunset clause. If they work, voters can renew them. But if there is no proof except that the tax money was squandered on now dependent over-head costs, the tax automatically sunsets. Pay attention next time these feel-good open-ended taxes get put on the ballot.

sbmh2015 Jun 17, 2019 02:55 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

Yet another complete fiasco by the city of santa barbara ....I can get 11 "taps" in one mile walk almost anywhere in town. Give tickets !!! Enforce the law !!! Get revenue from that. $200k for administration of $600k ??? Geez. You know there are some nice things in this town but it is ridiculous how they absolutely refuse to endorse the laws.

a-1560815987 Jun 17, 2019 04:59 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

Warnings won't change behavior. Tickets do. The money needs to be reallocated. It is being completely misspent to clean up State Street for the Businesses and Property Owners downtown complaining about transients.

a-1560832808 Jun 17, 2019 09:40 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

Tax us more; assess another fee. Another waste of my hard earned, confiscated dollars. Tax & spend; Bait & switch. When will SB locals mobilize to stop funding unnecessary, costly projects? Does everyone else have lots of cash to gift gov’t but me? Hold ‘um accountable Gott.

22701015201 Jun 17, 2019 10:04 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

Teens in School @ 9AM. Homeless on State St @ 9AM. Of course the City would get a grant to prevent smoking and have Ambassadors patrol State St @9AM to prevent teens from smoking. Makes perfect sense if you are trying to $cam the $tate out of Tax dollars any why you can. All to get the Homeless off State St and not have the City, Businesses or Property Owners foot the bill. WHO lost out so Santa Barbara could pick up >$1,000,000.? - Murillo and her "trained seal caucus" all need to go!

Flicka Jun 18, 2019 10:34 AM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

Someone said tobacco is as addictive as heroin. Sometimes more! A friend who was a "Drug and Alcohol Abuse Counselor" said some recovering heroin addicts said it was easier to get off the drug than off smoking. Definitely needs to be changes in how this tax money is used. I believe it all comes from taxes on tobacco.

a-1560879633 Jun 18, 2019 10:40 AM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

The Grant Applications Project Description says the City "seeks to reduce youth access to tobacco products, limit exposure to secondhand smoke, and reduce cigarette butt litter." It is disingenuous for the City to then say that the way they plan to do this is through through patrolling a sliver of State Street and hand out warnings which will not change anyone's behavior long term. If the goal is to reduce access or prevent youth from smoking Ambassadors are NOT the way to go. As far as patrolling State Street goes it is plain as day that this is all about the homeless and not about smoking. This grant should NEVER have been given.

Lucky 777 Jun 18, 2019 11:18 AM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

My business is located next to a "Vape Shop" and all day I watch people double-park and jaywalk and run in there with desperate looks on theirs faces, NEEDING a fix, a recharge of their Juul. It is quite disturbing. The level of nicotine is addicting them to the easy regular hit, and the younger they get hooked the harder it will be to kick. Whoever thinks the vapes were allowed because they will help people stop smoking tobacco doesn't understand this addiction.

Ahchooo Jun 18, 2019 08:03 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

I could not attend the City Council meeting today. I hope someone who attended will tell Edhat what they thought of it. It does seem that we need more concerted education, and not just reprimands of those smoking on State Street. It's crazy to me that after decades of clear evidence that smoking kills, we still have young people lighting up (and vaping).

SB Barbarian Jun 18, 2019 08:06 PM
The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change

The City has received nearly $1M to help kids stop smoking, or better still, prevent them from starting. $350K to presumably pay "Ambassadors" (sounds like a brand of cigarettes) in red uniforms. THere also are grey, and blue uniforms, which are a lot of uniforms. The ones in the blue uniforms get $350K to "enforce" tobacco laws. Finally, someone gets $250K to "administer" the "Ambassadors" and the "Enforcers". I presume that the police can adminster themselves.

1) Who budgets, dispenses, administers, and accounts for the funding? What public documents show how the money is being spent? Are we really paying red shirted "tappers"? How, exactly does the $350K lead to "enforcement". What constitutes "enforcement"? Do they haul chronic non-compliant smokes off to jail?
2) Do they have to file reports to the State to show how they spent the money?
3) Are there benchmarks which are defined by the State which need to be met? If so, are they being met? Are outcomes being measured?
4)Do other public entities spend their funds similarly?
5) Is it fair for only one tiny portion of the city getting the vast majority of the $ and intended benefit of the $$?
6)If the City of SB got $1M, how much did the County get, and what are they doing?
7) How, exactly, does the "Administrative Costs, Operating Expenses, and Other Expenses" get spent and accounted for?
8) Is "tapping" exactly like shaming, but with an invasion of one's space? I do not smoke, but I would not welcome some uniformed "Ambassador" tapping on my shoulder. If I were a business owner reliant on tourism, I would hate it.
9) Can anyone tap on an "offender's" shoulder and tell them to put it out or you'll call the cops? Or do you have to wear a uniform, likely have a name badge, and be sanctioned by the State?
10) I am uncomfortable with the allocation of funds, how it is used, and think the % allocated to administration is way too much, and I am not convinced that the citizens of the City of SB are getting their money's worth.

Finally, what, exactly is "engaging with businesses and visitors to address behavior, maintenance, and aesthetics issues.” What are "aesthetics issues", and who decides these - Ambassadors? What behavior? What is "Maintenance"? How much do Ambassadors make? How many are there? Has the City met the Primary Goal "to conduct a comprehensive public awareness campaign to help residents and visitors understand the City’s new smoking law, reduce youth access to tobacco related products and improve enforcement in problem areas in the Downtown corridor"?

It seems futile, ineffective, and there are too many uniforms. This is SB - we don't wear uniforms.

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