DULUTH — Using Big Tobacco’s own money against the industry, the stop-smoking group ClearWay Minnesota was created in 1998. Fueled with a slice of the $6.1 billion the tobacco industry paid the state to settle a suit claiming it deceived Minnesotans about the harmful nature of its products, ClearWay, for more than 20 years, has been a leader in the fight against deadly, cancer-causing tobacco products and against unscrupulous tobacco-industry marketing, including to vulnerable and minority communities and even to children, attempting to get them hooked on nicotine.
But ClearWay’s days are numbered. In accordance with the same state statute that created it, the organization is to disband at the end of this year. So in the 2021 legislative session, its focus, with its partners, will be on lobbying for “sustainable, long-term funding for tobacco prevention and treatment,” as ClearWay Senior Public Affairs Manager Laura Smith said in a meeting this week, held virtually, with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.
“We continue to face a youth-tobacco epidemic — when it comes to e-cigarettes, especially,” Smith said. “That’s something we really need to tackle with strong funding, as well as making sure that we have the resources there for treatment.”
The likely ask of legislators will be $15 million, Smith said, which would be part of meeting the $53 million a year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated Minnesota should be investing annually “to do the work effectively,” as Smith stated. Additional funds used by the state come from $760 million taken in annually from sales taxes on tobacco products, settlement fees, and other tobacco-related sources. Last year only about 1% of those revenues went to tobacco prevention and treatment, however.
ClearWay and others countering the scourge of nicotine, including the rising popularity of vaping among youths, will also focus this legislative session on a carryover from last year: banning the sales of flavored tobacco products and how they’re marketed like candy to kids and as menthol to African-American and other communities. Good progress being made last year on a ban was halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck about mid-session.
Minnesota lawmakers have an opportunity to ensure the state remains a leader in reversing youth nicotine addiction and holding Big Tobacco accountable for its predatory behaviors. Among the praiseworthy progress made here, in 2007, the state expanded its Clean Indoor Air Act, and smoking is now prohibited pretty much everywhere the public can go, inside and outside. That includes worksites, schools, restaurants, bars, parks, and bowling alleys. Penalties are enforced in Minnesota, too, with no local opt-outs. Recognizing that the more expensive tobacco products are the less likely they are to be purchased, especially among young people, Minnesota also aggressively enacted the nation's eighth-highest state cigarette tax. And, on Aug. 1, the legal age to buy tobacco products was raised to 21 in the Gopher State.
That’s a lot of wins. With more challenges ahead.
“They have way more money than we do,” LaTrisha Vetaw of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation and of the Menthol Commission said of the tobacco industry in the meeting with the News Tribune. “We have to work harder and smarter every single time we pass a policy. When we do this work, oftentimes we think, ‘Yes, this is the big one. We’re done for a little while. We can give our lawmakers a little rest.’ And then Big Tobacco proves us wrong. They come right in and work against everything we’re doing.”
With ClearWay on the way out, there’s concern Big Tobacco could win the upper hand.
But the Minnesota Department of Health is more than ready to take the lead, Smith and others said. Also, Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, whose goal is exactly that, has 60-plus organizations working under its umbrella, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota, the American Cancer Society, and the American Lung Association. None of them have any plans to back down.
“It’s a huge coalition,” said Pat McKone, director of the American Lung Association in Duluth. “This is really a high-functioning coalition that understands focus and strategy and working together and that it’s a really important mission, of that power of togetherness, that we’re stronger together. We definitely are going to have a transition, but the work of ClearWay over this last year has been to try to make it as smooth as possible.”
Minnesotans can insist the efforts to clear the air here remain as effective as possible, too — as effective as they’ve been for more than 20 years. The next step can come this session of the Minnesota Legislature and support for adequate funding and for a ban on the sales of flavored tobacco.
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.