MAKEOVER - MPAAT responds to funding challenge
By Lenora Chu
ST. PAUL -- The chairman of the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco today challenged Attorney General Mike Hatch's motion to strip the group of its $202 million endowment from the state's 1998 landmark settlement with the tobacco industry.
Dr. Richard Hurt, chairman of MPAAT and a Mayo Clinic physician, called today's press conference at the Capitol to clarify the organization's mission and stress the continuing need to fight tobacco use, which he said has killed 1,700 Minnesotans in 2002 to date.
"There have been allegations made about MPAAT, our actions and our effectiveness," Hurt said. "These charges are untrue, the claims are false and the attacks on our integrity are simply outrageous."
Hatch has publicly disapproved of MPAAT's methods, including using funding to lobby for smoking-ban ordinances, which opponents of the organization say have been divisive and ineffective.
But Hurt spoke in support of MPAAT's smoking-ban efforts.
"We know from our research that people who are smokers that are put into a smoke-free workplace reduce their consumption of cigarettes dramatically," Hurt said. "It also increases their chances of stopping smoking."
In the motion, which Hatch filed Friday with the Ramsey County District Court, he asks the court to establish that the tobacco funds not be spent for political purposes. Hatch also wants to re-allocate MPAAT's $202 million grant to the University of Minnesota Medical School and the state Department of Health.
If Hatch succeeds, MPAAT, currently an independent nonprofit, would become an organization that must apply for state grants from the Department of Health, like most other health-related nonprofits.
But Hurt stressed that the anti-smoking organization must continue to exist as an independent nonprofit, which shields it from "the political conflict that occurs around 'Big Tobacco.'"
Hurt said a firm resolution will come on May 17, the date of the court hearing on the issue, and that MPAAT would continue to fight tobacco use in the meantime.
"Let's let the court resolve the issue," Hurt said. "That is the proper forum for that. But let us find common ground on at least some solutions. While we wait to resolve our issues and differences, tobacco continues to take its toll."
In the interests of finding this "common ground," Hurt sent a letter to the attorney general today urging him to:
Ensure that the tobacco industry is complying with the terms of the 1998 settlement.
Reject contributions from "Big Tobacco" during his re-election campaign.
Fill two MPAAT board vacancies quickly.
Participate in community meetings about tobacco-use reduction around the state.
Hatch was planning to issue a response today.
MPAAT, which was created as a result of the state's $6.1 billion tobacco settlement runs a telephone helpline for smokers and provides nicotine gum and patches in cases of need. Hurt said the helpline has received more than 7,000 calls.