For the past 20 years, ClearWay Minnesota has led the fight against the state's top preventable cause of death and disease, tobacco.
ClearWay, a foundation created in 1998 using 3 percent of the state's court settlement with big tobacco, has addressed tobacco control in myriad ways: Cessation programs, research, community development, public affairs and education. But the best tool in their arsenal can be found in smokers' wallets.
"Price is one of the most powerful tools we have," said Adam Kintopf, ClearWay's director of strategic communications.
According to ClearWay research, 53% of all smoking declines in Minnesota since 1993 are attributable to tobacco price increases. Youths are especially responsive to price increases, and higher prices may reduce youth e-cigarette use. That is why ClearWay and its partners in the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition on Tuesday welcomed Gov. Tim Walz's tobacco tax proposals. Walz would raise the price of vaping products and increase Minnesota's cigarette tax by $1 per pack.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimate that a $1 per pack increase would mean 8,800 fewer kids becoming adult smokers, 16,200 adult smokers quitting and $533 million in long-term health savings.
Walz's proposal is welcome news, but a funding vacuum looms. ClearWay, which has long provided the majority of funding for tobacco prevention in the state, will cease to exist at the end of 2021. The foundation was given an end date when it was created in 1998 with no mechanism to extend its life. That means the state health department and Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation will have to pick up the ball.
There's still much to be done. The number of Minnesota smokers has remained flat in the past few years, and the state faces a crisis with youth vaping. In 2019, 26% of 11th-graders and 11% of 8th-graders said they were vaping.
And big tobacco is targeting its marketing to children by using flavored tobacco and vaping products. One of ClearWay's goals is to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products. The American Lung Association on Wednesday gave Minnesota an F for its efforts to restrict access to flavored tobacco products. It also gave an F to state funding for tobacco prevention programs.
Last year, Minnesota took in nearly $760 million in tobacco revenue and spent only 1% of that on commercial tobacco prevention and treatment.
That has to change. There needs to be dedicated funding for campaigns to keep people from starting to smoke and money for programs to help people quit. It's a small price to pay for a health scourge that is taking an estimated 480,000 American lives every year.