By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Tobacco tax proceeds in Del Norte County may go up in smoke if the county cant find a way to spend it, officials say.

At stake is $75,000 the county must spend by June 1.

A meeting took place yesterday afternoon with Del Norte County officials trying to come up with ways to spend the funds on anti-smoking campaigns Sacramento will approve. Otherwise, the state wants the money back - plus interest.

Its really been an absolutely ridiculous situation, said Ed Dimock of the Department of Social Services.

The problem is the state might agree to something via the telephone and then change their minds later in a letter after we already made a purchase. Theyve changed their minds many, many times, Dimock said.

Of the $150,000 allocated to Del Norte County for this fiscal year, Dimock said approximately half has been spent or has been designated for a particular project.

We have spent a lot of money on good things: the soccer association, Friday Night Live, the swim team, the drama club ... theres a whole list. But the state denied spending money on the Crescent Elk Band, though, said Dimock.

Most of the money is generated by the 1988 California initiative Proposition 99 and is called the California Tobacco Control Program. More money was added to the program after a lawsuit against tobacco companies was settled by various states.

Californias Tobacco Education Research Oversight Committee urged the state to spend more on the program in February, citing statistics that show a clear trend away from smoking.

Adult smoking prevalence tumbled from 26.7 percent in 1988 to 18.4 percent in 1998, which is the second lowest in the nation and far below the national average of 25 percent, the committees report said.

Dimocks complaint with the program isnt with the results but with the implementation.

I have never seen a state program that made such demands, he said. They basically tell us, look, you either spend this money, which includes all the interest, or we want it back. Were in the process right now of trying to find out how much interest has been accrued.

County Administrative Officer Ben Angove said the purpose of Wednesdays meeting will be to determine the status of the program and the funds still available. This will be presented at the regularly scheduled meeting of the county Board of Supervisors on April 24.