A legislative hearing was held in St. Paul last week on a proposal to prohibit the sales of flavored tobacco products statewide. It marked just the latest positive moment in a decades-long crusade to curb cancer-causing nicotine in Minnesota.
But the positive moment was tempered by a less-than-positive report card just two and a half weeks earlier called the “State of Tobacco Control.” Minnesota received two A’s, two F’s, and a B from the American Lung Association in its eighth such report. Not all terrible, but any mom or dad considering marks like those brought home by Junior would, no doubt, respond much as Taylour Blakeman, an American Lung Association health specialist, did to the tobacco-control grades.
“There is more to do,” Blakeman said in an interview with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “We shouldn’t just stop and say, ‘This is fine, this is great where we are.’ We should, we need, to get going and making more progress.”
First the A’s, since that’s what good parents would focus on first.
One was for “Strength of Smokefree Workplace Laws.” Smoking is against the law, including no e-cigarettes, pretty much everywhere the public can go in Minnesota, at places like government and private worksites, schools, child-care facilities, restaurants, bars, stores, parks, bowling alleys, medical facilities, and recreational and cultural facilities. Also, penalties are enforced here, and no local opt-outs are allowed.
Our other A was for “Coverage and Access to Services to Quit Tobacco.” Medicaid and employee health plans in Minnesota cover medications and tobacco-cessation counseling, the American Lung Association reported. Also, there are only “some” barriers to getting help; and the state’s cessation helpline, “Quitplan,” is investing effectively to help tobacco users stop. More than 570,000 Minnesota adults have stopped smoking since 2014. Minnesotans who smoke has dropped from 14.4% to 13.8%.
The B on the Minnesota report card was for “Level of State Tobacco Taxes.” Higher taxes make tobacco products less affordable, which encourages quitting or not starting. Minnesota has the eighth-highest cigarette tax at $3.04 per pack. That compares to the per-state national average cigarette tax of $1.81 per pack. Wisconsin ranks 14th, and the Dakotas rank 28th and 48th, all according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Now the F’s, where “more progress” is needed.
One was for “Funding for State Tobacco Prevention Programs,” which may seem surprising considering how high-profile and active ClearWay, QuitPlan, the American Heart Association, and others advocating against smoking and nicotine have been. The $17 million-plus in state and federal funds spent in Minnesota this year may seem ample, but not when compared to the $53 million-plus the Centers for Disease Control recommends. Minnesota is only spending a third of what it should, according to the report.
The other F was because Minnesota hasn’t yet raised the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. While some 60 cities and counties, including Duluth and Hermantown, have passed so-called Tobacco 21 laws in Minnesota, legislative action has fallen short. That's even though raising the smoking age promises a 25% reduction in young Minnesotans taking up the habit and the knowledge that if tobacco use doesn't start before 21 it likely won't start at all.
The American Lung Association and others can be encouraged that Tobacco 21, funding for proven tobacco-prevention efforts, and flavored tobacco are all on the Minnesota Legislature’s docket this session.
“There’s not one silver bullet when it comes to preventing youth tobacco use but all these pieces, when they are put together, can create a nice net that catches a lot of kids and keeps them safe,” Adam Kintof of ClearWay said to editorial board members. “There are a lot of legislative champions who are chomping at the bit to do work in this area.”
More work is clearly needed if Minnesota is to improve its grades for 2021.