May 2021 is the 23rd anniversary of the end of the historic Minnesota Tobacco Trial, which uncovered millions of pages of previously secret tobacco industry documents. These documents exposed how cigarette companies manipulated nicotine to make their products more addictive and marketed cigarettes to children. The industry presented itself as just a business selling a legal product while promoting a product, cigarettes, which resulted in the premature death of more than 60% of smokers. In fact, cigarettes are responsible for 30% of all cancer deaths in the United States. Despite the progress made over the past 20 years the tobacco industry keeps innovating to attract new customers, especially kids. Both then and now, tobacco products are being sold in attractive flavors, purposely used to hook children. Today it’s electronic nicotine delivery devices that are Big Tobacco’s latest lure. E-cigarettes are not approved for quitting smoking by the FDA, and more than any other individual tobacco product they attract and introduce kids to nicotine.
As a result of the Minnesota Tobacco Trial, a new nonprofit, the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco, was formed. Working together with national health leaders, the organization, later renamed Clearway Minnesota, grew into a force for good in the state. During its 20-plus years of existence, ClearWay funded research on ways to prevent smoking, provided free programs to help smokers stop smoking, ran statewide advertising campaigns warning against tobacco’s dangers, and promoted the establishment of smoke-free workplace ordinances that resulted in the statewide Freedom to Breathe law. Thousands of Minnesotans stopped smoking through these efforts, which resulted in the saving of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in Minnesota.
Yet tobacco use is still Minnesota’s leading cause of preventable death and disease, taking more than 6,300 Minnesotans every year and costing an estimated $7 billion annually in health care and worker productivity every year. Thus, the problem continues, and ClearWay Minnesota won’t be here forever – in fact, its life-limited charter means it will shutter at the end of this year. Now is not the time to fall behind Big Tobacco. The people of Minnesota have always valued health and protecting our kids from harm, and Rep. Tina Liebling and Sen. Carla Nelson have been strong leaders on prevention. We must continue to demonstrate how important these values are, and to prevent the next generation from once again falling victim to an industry that stands for the exact opposite.
The state Legislature is considering dedicating a greater share of tobacco revenue to prevention, education, treatment and community-tailored interventions to better support populations with the highest tobacco use rates from decades of tobacco industry targeting. The state took in $760 million last year in tobacco taxes and ongoing settlement revenues. By comparison, the proposed investments are a tiny drop in the bucket compared to what the tobacco industry spends. Increasing Minnesota’s investment from one penny per dollar of tobacco revenue to two or three pennies will reduce addiction, save money and save lives. Let your state representative hear from you about the importance of adequately funding tobacco prevention and treatment initiatives.
Dr. Richard Hurt is a native of Kentucky and graduate of Murray State University and the University of Louisville. He retired after a 40-year career at Mayo Clinic