ClearWay Minnesota recently approved a new project to help African American and American Indian communities access free support to quit smoking, called QUITPLAN Services Ambassadors. The Ambassador Project will provide in-person engagement with community members to increase use of the free cessation tools and coaching provided by QUITPLAN Services.
Funding for the QUITPLAN Services Ambassadors project was approved by the ClearWay Minnesota Board of Directors on July 19, 2017, to the Stairstep Foundation and the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches/Division of Indian Work.
“At ClearWay Minnesota, we’re committed to providing free support for all smokers who want to quit,” said David Willoughby, our Chief Executive Officer. “This Ambassador Project will help address commercial tobacco use among communities that have long been disproportionately targeted by the tobacco industry and have some of the highest cigarette-smoking rates.”
The Stairstep Foundation, formed in 1992, has worked to close health disparities in the African American community and improve access to affordable healthcare. The Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches/Division of Indian Work has a mission to empower urban American Indians through culturally-based education, counseling, advocacy and leadership development.
According to the latest Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey, 14.4 percent of the adult population in Minnesota smokes, but Minnesota’s diverse communities often smoke at higher rates and have greater disease burdens than the general population in Minnesota.
“Local organizations have the best knowledge and judgment about their communities’ needs,” said Willoughby. “These organizations have track records of improving the health and wellness of their communities, and we believe they will help even more people quit commercial tobacco with our help.”
On Monday, the Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee of the Minneapolis City Council heard testimony on a proposal to limit sales of menthol tobacco to adult-only tobacco shops. Candy- and fruit-flavored tobacco sales are already restricted, but so far menthol has been exempted from the city’s tobacco ordinance.
Approximately 70 individuals gave testimony, with many supporting the proposal. Speakers stressed that menthol attracts youth and nonsmokers to smoking, and that minority communities are targeted by menthol ads and disproportionately harmed by tobacco-related diseases.
Dr. Raymond Boyle is ClearWay Minnesota’s Director of Research, and also represents Ward 1 on the city’s Public Health Advisory Committee (PHAC). Dr. Boyle noted that the PHAC unanimously supports the proposal. “The research is quite clear,” he said. “It makes it easier to start, it appeals to young people and is disproportionately marketed to communities of color.” The proposed change, he said, “is a perfect example of a strong public policy that will enhance public health.”
Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, Vice Chair of our Board of Directors and cofounder of the INTER-RACE Institute at Augsburg College, placed menthol tobacco addiction in the context of American history. “Our African ancestors were brought here to grow and pick tobacco; tobacco enslaved us. Four hundred years later, we’re still enslaved to tobacco,” she said, noting the high rates of menthol use and smoking-related disease in African American communities. “Tobacco addiction kills us more than accidents and homicides, and it’s got to stop.”
LaTrisha Vetaw of ClearWay Minnesota grantee organization NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center, which brings health services to residents of North Minneapolis, shared disturbing statistics with the Committee. “Youth use of menthol tobacco has doubled since 2000,” she said, “and 88 percent of African American smokers use menthol. The tobacco industry has long manipulated levels of menthol in their cigarettes. To them, each new smoker, and each current smoker who can’t quit, means dollar signs. ‘Profits Over People’ should be the tobacco industry’s official motto.”
Finally, Eugene Nichols of the African American Leadership Forum, a ClearWay Minnesota grantee organization, shared the heartbreaking story of his brother, who died of smoking-related illness at 68 earlier this month. “The tobacco industry has targeted African Americans with menthol cigarettes for decades,” he said. “You have the opportunity in front of you to help young people of color lead healthier lives.”
The Committee will vote on the proposal on August 2, with a final vote at the August 4 meeting of the full City Council.
Governor Dayton stands up for health, asks lawmakers to undo tobacco tax cuts
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is engaged in a showdown with legislative leaders over breaks for tobacco companies and other provisions included in the tax bill sent to him last month. The cuts repeal an annual increase of state tobacco taxes to adjust for inflation, and reduce the price and weaken the definition of “premium” cigars.
After a special session at the end of May, Gov. Dayton signed the tax bill, but vetoed funding for the Legislature for the next two years. The Governor said the veto should motivate lawmakers to return for another special session and undo the tobacco tax cuts. In a statement, he noted the relationship between high tobacco taxes and low smoking rates, called the tax cuts “egregious” and said he was appalled legislative leaders had made them a priority this year. Lawmakers have sued the Governor in response.
Taken together, the tax cuts partially roll back the strong tobacco tax package passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor in 2013, and on Friday, June 9, Gov. Dayton appeared with dozens of youth from Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation to speak on the importance of keeping our tobacco prices high. Sharing a new report on the 2013 tax’s impacts from the Minnesota Department of Health, the Governor said, “Making cigarettes less easily accessible to children and adults means fewer Minnesotans start smoking, and more are likely to quit.”
He was joined by the state Health Commissioner, Dr. Edward Ehlinger, and by ClearWay Minnesota’s Molly Moilanen, a co-chair of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, as well as by youth advocates and a volunteer from the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. All of them spoke on the benefits Minnesota has seen from the 2013 tobacco tax, including reductions in smoking by adults and youth and increases in quitting because of high tobacco prices.
We are grateful to Gov. Dayton for making this issue a priority. By doing so, he is helping to create a healthier future for our whole state, and preventing Big Tobacco from hurting the kids of Minnesota. We join the Governor in calling on leaders of both parties to come back and remove the tax breaks, which benefit an industry that creates death and disease, and drives up costs for everyone.