Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation supporters at the coalition's 2017 Day at the Capitol. Photo Credit: Jason Daum

The 2022 Minnesota legislative session is well underway. Among the many issues at hand, reducing the negative health impacts of commercial tobacco use remains at the forefront.

Impact of commercial tobacco 

Despite the progress made in recent years, commercial tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable disease and premature death. 

Every year, smoking takes the lives of more than 6,300 Minnesotans and costs over $3 billion in health care expenses and lost productivity, according to a 2017 Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota study.

Fourteen percent of Minnesota adults still smoke, and the burden of tobacco use and disease remains unconscionably high in communities of color, low-income communities, the LGBTQ community and those with mental illness or substance use disorders. Because of generations of targeting by the commercial tobacco industry, these communities use tobacco or e-cigarettes at disproportionately high levels compared to other groups. Tobacco companies know this and focus their predatory marketing efforts on these communities and individuals – especially youth.

Creating a healthier future

These complex challenges require a comprehensive approach. Two essential components include ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products – including menthol – and removing barriers to treatment for tobacco use for all Minnesotans.

Ending sale of flavored tobacco products

While youth cigarette smoking is at historic lows, rising e-cigarette rates have erased nearly two decades of progress to reduce youth tobacco use. In 2019, more than a quarter of Minnesota 11th-graders and more than one in 10 8th-graders reported vaping. Schools and communities are facing a major health crisis, which is fueled by Big Tobacco.

Flavored tobacco products are a key reason for this crisis. They are also the major driving force behind the use of commercial tobacco among people who identify as Black, Indigenous and LGBTQ. The tobacco industry has used these products to racially segment and target certain communities and youth. In particular, tobacco companies have channeled menthol tobacco products into Black communities for decades. This targeting has led to significantly higher rates of use, with 85 percent of Black smokers using menthols, versus 29 percent of white smokers.

Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation supporters at the coalition’s 2017 Day at the Capitol. Photo Credit: Jason Daum

These flavored tobacco products are more addictive, easier for kids to start using and harder to stop. Ending the sale of menthol and all flavored tobacco products will address health inequities and prevent youth tobacco use, creating a healthier future for kids.

Ensuring access to treatment for tobacco use

For people who use tobacco products, having access to things like counseling and tobacco cessation medication can double the chances of quitting successfully. But these critical supports are not accessible to all Minnesotans.

Across the state, people who are covered by Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare are twice as likely to smoke but lack consistent access to support to quit. People living with mental health or substance use disorders are also disproportionately impacted by a lack of access to treatment.

Consistent and ongoing access to these essential supports would significantly improve if state policies required Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCare to: 

  • Cover FDA-approved medications and counseling without barriers; and 
  • Expand the types of providers who can seek reimbursement for delivering counseling services.

These issues – ending the sale of flavored tobacco products and removing barriers to treatment – are two of the main priorities of the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition during this legislative session. The coalition is made up of more than 60 organizations that share a common goal of advancing justice by striving toward a future where every person is free from commercial tobacco’s harms and can reach their full health potential.

Blue Cross’ commitment

Blue Cross has been a longtime advocate for reducing the harm related to commercial tobacco use and requiring tobacco industry transparency, going back to its landmark lawsuit against and settlement with tobacco companies more than 20 years ago. Today, Blue Cross continues that commitment through its funding of community-based initiatives and leadership within the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition. 

“Blue Cross has worked to reduce the impact of commercial tobacco in Minnesota for decades,” says Janelle Waldock, senior director of policy at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota and co-chair of Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation. “Together with our coalition partners, we remain focused on reducing commercial tobacco use for the communities who experience the greatest racial and health inequities – and one critical way we do that is through policy change. Ending the sale of flavored tobacco products and expanding access to treatment would have a significant impact on the future health of all Minnesotans – especially those most impacted by the harms of commercial tobacco.”

Note: Tobacco in this piece refers specifically to the use of manufactured, commercial tobacco products, and not to the sacred, medicinal and traditional use of tobacco by Indigenous peoples and other groups.