The landscape of tobacco use in Minnesota has changed greatly over the past 20 years. As CEO of ClearWay Minnesota, the nonprofit founded by the state’s tobacco settlement, I feel proud of the contributions we have made to help eliminate the harms of cigarette smoking and other commercial tobacco use.
Next month, in accordance with our original charter, ClearWay Minnesota will close its doors for good. I want to take this opportunity to share with Minnesotans the successes we have accomplished together and the work that remains.
Twenty years ago, the air in Minnesota bars and restaurants was hazy with smoke, smoking rates for adults and youth were sky high, and smokers had few resources to quit. Together with passionate individuals and organizations, we helped change that culture.
Today, fewer adults and kids than ever are smoking cigarettes, and indoor public places are all smoke-free. Through local and state policy, we have put many barriers between young people and a deadly addiction, including smoking bans, Tobacco 21, and local restrictions on flavored tobacco sales. These steps worked. Just this month, a new study headed by a University of Minnesota researcher found Minnesota communities that raised the tobacco age to 21 saw lower rates of tobacco use among eighth- and ninth-graders than communities that did not.
There is also greater understanding of how the tobacco industry uses racist targeting to manipulate Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and other communities of color. Together with Minnesota’s tribes, we have increased understanding of sacred tobacco traditions of American Indians. By honoring those sacred traditions, we have magnified the understanding and reduced the harm of commercial tobacco.
The founders of our organization knew bold investments would get results. Devoting $202 million, which was 3%, of the initial settlement to ClearWay Minnesota showed that keeping kids smoke-free and helping people quit were high priorities for Minnesota.
Unfortunately, the tobacco industry, always an elusive enemy, has morphed and changed the landscape, too. The introduction of high-nicotine e-cigarettes has proven a disaster for young people. While cigarette smoking has fallen dramatically, 20% of Minnesota high-school students are now vaping, drawn in by sweet flavors and sophisticated marketing. The continued e-cigarette epidemic means too many kids are still drawn to nicotine and harming their brains and bodies. Worse, they are setting themselves up for a lifetime of addiction. These developments complicate our success against Big Tobacco and show the need for continued vigilance and action.
Over the past 20 years, Minnesota’s strong policies and prevention and treatment investments have prevented thousands of cancers and tens of thousands of hospitalizations for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease — and have prevented more than 4,000 deaths. In addition, we have saved $5.1 billion in worker productivity and health care costs, and more than 200,000 Minnesotans got help quitting through QUITPLAN Services.
These results show the power of investing in comprehensive programs including research, media campaigns, advocacy, and outreach to communities disproportionately harmed.
Minnesota must continue these efforts, and we are ready to pass the baton. ClearWay Minnesota was founded as a limited-life organization that will sunset at the end of this year. Fortunately, through bipartisan leadership, Minnesota will continue to have dedicated investments in stop-smoking services and in smoking-prevention efforts targeted at youths. These precious investments must be protected in the years ahead so we can stay ahead in our race against Big Tobacco.
ClearWay Minnesota was a grand experiment of which Minnesotans should be proud. Thank you to the visionaries who created us and the partners who collaborated with us. We owe you a debt of gratitude, and with your continued commitment, we know we are leaving Minnesota’s health in good hands.
David J. Willoughby is chief executive officer of Minneapolis-headquartered ClearWay Minnesota (clearwaymn.org). He wrote this for the News Tribune.