Left to right: Blue Cross Sr. Policy Director Janelle Waldock, Blue Cross Community Health and Health Equity Sr. Manager Chris Matter, Blue Cross Chief Equity Officer Bukata Hayes, Mia Erickson and Attorney General Keith Ellison Credit: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota

In Minnesota, we always like to be seen as one of the healthiest states, and one that is proactive and progressive on major public health work. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of commercial tobacco. Over the last 20 years, we have made significant strides to reduce commercial tobacco use, including the groundbreaking Minnesota Clean Indoor Air Act, increasing the tax on commercial tobacco products (including e-cigarettes) and funding “QuitPartner,” the Minnesota Department of Health’s new quit line services. The result: the adult smoking rate has dropped precipitously from 22.1 percent in 1999, to just 13.4 percent today. Nevertheless, such stats mask a troubling statistic that shows the high school commercial tobacco use rate is 28%. As national data indicates that about ninety 90 percent of adults who smoke start before age 18, this can have grave impacts for future smoking rates and health.

Excitedly, this year’s legislative session made great strides in seeing the ills of commercial tobacco having a greatly reduced impact on the health of Minnesotans. The state is expected to see a historic $60.5 million payout after reaching a settlement with the e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL and tobacco marketer Altria over its role in the vaping epidemic. Such a settlement is similar to the pioneering settlement Blue Cross was part of in 1998, where as plaintiffs they argued that the tobacco companies had misled Americans about the dangers of their products. In recent years the e-cigarette and flavored tobacco industries have become the new battleline in the fight against Big Tobacco. Indeed, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, roughly 87 percent of young Minnesotans use a flavored tobacco product. With the timing of this new settlement, legislators also took the opportunity to pass legislation that dedicates the state’s settlement to tobacco prevention. Another major win for tobacco prevention from this session included in the bill is a provision that expands access to tobacco dependency treatment to Minnesotans on Medicaid seeking to address the already large inequities in tobacco use in the state.  

Attorney General Keith Ellison announcing the terms of the state’s settlement with JUUL and Altria. Photo credit: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota.

“Through our leadership of the Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation coalition, we proactively saw an opportunity to introduce legislation that would establish a fund for the settlement proceeds to be dedicated to commercial tobacco prevention, treatment, and community health,” said Janelle Waldock, Director of Racial & Health Equity Policy at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. “This JUUL dedication was part of the final Health & Human Services omnibus bill that was ultimately signed into law by Governor Walz. The result is JUUL settlement proceeds will go to the Minnesota Department of Health to augment their commercial tobacco prevention program, funding communities across the state to do this vital work.”

In the fight against flavored tobacco, one major piece of legislation remains undone: a bill to end the sale of menthol and all flavored commercial tobacco products in Minnesota. Flavors continue to drive the state’s youth tobacco crisis and the industry marketing of flavored products is a huge driver of tobacco-related health inequities. “Every time Big Tobacco addicts another generation of kids, they put all taxpayers on the hook for billions of dollars in healthcare costs to treat tobacco-related diseases,” said Waldock. A quarter of the state’s population is currently covered by 28 local policies restricting sales of flavored and/or menthol tobacco products – with Richfield City Council moving forward with ending the sale of all flavored commercial tobacco products including menthol tobacco this month. A recent poll found two-to-one support for the proposal to end flavored tobacco sales in Minnesota.

Supporting communities to create solutions to rid commercial tobacco from their neighborhoods is a complex and unique fight. Much work is focused on local policies that eliminate menthol and all flavors from commercial tobacco, as well as eliminating coupons and price discounting. Other work uses cultural competency, awareness and education that counter the tobacco industry targeting of LGBTQ+ youth.

Centering on community driven and coalition powered work has always been the recipe for success in reducing the harms of commercial tobacco to Minnesotans. Blue Cross, through its Center for Prevention, works on these principles by supporting and funding community-driven and culturally specific efforts.

“We must continue to send a message that Minnesota was and is watching the tobacco industry and holding them accountable for the products they put on our shelves that target youth,” said Chris Matter, Community Health and Health Equity Senior Manager at the Center for Prevention. “Moving forward to protect youth from a lifetime of nicotine addiction and supporting them on their journey to eliminate vapes from their lives is core to ending the damage commercial tobacco does to the health of individuals, families, communities, and our state.”


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