DENVER (AP) – Auditors on Monday questioned whether Colorado health officials are following the law by giving money from tobacco taxes to help local initiatives barring smoking in public beyond what’s already prohibited by state law.

State law already prohibits smoking inside most public places. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment awarded $5.2 million to 140 grantees in 2010 and 2011 to help pass local policies that ban smoking in other locations like restaurant patios, cigar bars, or housing complexes where low-income people live.

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The funds come from a voter-approved constitutional amendment that increased taxes on tobacco in 2005, with the aim of boosting prevention and cessation programs. The auditors said it’s unclear whether state law allows grant money to fund policy initiatives.

The auditors recommended that the department ask for a legal opinion from the state attorney general. But Dr. Chris Urbina, the department’s executive director and chief medical officer, disagreed with the recommendation and said officials were using the money appropriately.

“Knowing full well that we have limited funding, we gave this funding to specifically smaller communities that could educate, engage their communities, and discuss decisions at a local level,” he said.

State Republican Sen. Steve King, R-Mesa County, said he was concerned by Urbina’s comments.

“They’re concerning in the fact that it appears to me that you think that (your department) has a better understanding of constitutional law than the attorney general, and my question to you would be, ‘What does it hurt to ask the attorney general for an opinion?'”

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Urbina maintained that the department was following state law, and noted that the money is not used for lobbying. He said the grants have been used successfully in Delta, Grand Junction, Steamboat Springs and Salida.

Educational and treatment programs have taken a hit in recent years. Like many other states, Colorado has also used the money to help balance the budget. Ohio liquidated the state’s Tobacco Use Prevention and Control Foundation. And New Hampshire, which has depended mostly on a landmark 1998 federal tobacco settlement for its cessation programs, has diverted much of the funds for other budget needs.

The Colorado voter-approved constitutional amendment directs tobacco taxes to education and treatment programs, but state lawmakers have gotten around that requirement by declaring a “fiscal emergency” in recent years. They’ve used a portion of the money on Medicaid and a children’s health insurance program.

Colorado lawmakers did not use money from the tobacco taxes on this year’s budget.

In fiscal year 2011, the state collected about $145 million from the tobacco taxes, which voters increased from on cigarettes from 20 cents to 84 cents per pack in 2005. Voters also increased taxes on other tobacco products from 20 percent to 40 percent of the manufacturer’s list price.

– By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

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