The Ambassador Program for the Tobacco Tax Should Change
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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