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Advocates want to further campaign against tobacco use

REGIONAL -- Despite the fact that an all-time low 14.4 percent of Minnesotans smoke, tobacco still kills more Minnesotans than homicides, car accidents, illegal drugs and suicide combined. It also accounts for $2.51 billion in annual healthcare c...

REGIONAL - Despite the fact that an all-time low 14.4 percent of Minnesotans smoke, tobacco still kills more Minnesotans than homicides, car accidents, illegal drugs and suicide combined. It also accounts for $2.51 billion in annual healthcare costs, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids.

The tobacco prevention advocates say this is why anti-smoking efforts should be better funded -  that it’s difficult to fight tobacco use with a $22 million state budget while tobacco companies spend more than $115 million marketing their products statewide. The campaign said more money could mean more educational programs to further reduce the number of kids who smoke.

Luke Ewald, a public health educator for Des Moines Valley Health and Human Services who also works with the Cottonwood-Jackson-Nobles County Statewide Health Improvement Program, has personal experience in educating kids about the danger of smoking. He helped work with students in Cottonwood, Jackson and Redwood counties for the Start Noticing campaign, which began in 2009.

“When you go into the classroom and tell the kids what smoking does to you; to your body, your teeth, people around you ... that it kills you, those kids grow up and meet you again and say, ‘Hey, I never started smoking because of you,’” Ewald said. “It really is life changing.”

An early 2000 study found 32 percent of Minnesota high school students were current smokers. That number dropped to 10.6 percent in 2016. In 2001, a survey found 19 percent of Cottonwood County students reported smoking a cigarette at least once in the last 30 days. That number dropped to 5 percent in 2014.  

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“To see a drop like that, why would one argue it doesn't work?” Ewald said. “I think it’s working really great.”

Cottonwood County is one of the few counties in the state that is 100 percent tobacco-free on its county grounds, county parks and city parks. Ewald credited such policies which discouraged smoking for the decline. He also said he was doubtful e-cigarettes were having a positive impact in helping smokers quit their addictive habit.

“Yes, some people have quit, but when you look at the number of students who are dual users of both e-cigs and cigarettes, you do have to wonder,” Ewald said.

Anne Mason, senior public affairs manager for ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit organization created after the 1998 settlement in which tobacco companies forfeited $6.1 billion to the state, said there were many ways to discourage tobacco use, starting with educational movements.

“Mass media campaigns are very effective to educate the public, highlight dangers of tobacco use and fight back against the influence of the tobacco industry trying to hook our kids,” Mason said. “There’s also, of course, helping people quit.”

She credited Quitplan, a free hotline that offers counseling and gum or patches, for helping “thousands of Minnesotans quit.”

ClearWay was created with 3 percent of the $6.1 billion settlement. Tobacco companies will no longer have to pay in 2023, which is when the organization will be dissolved.

“We know that we aren’t around forever,” Mason said. “That’s why we want to give the biggest bang for our buck.”

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Mason said the average cost of a pack of cigarettes in Minnesota is $5.58, while each pack smoked costs an estimated $8.85 in medical expenses and lost productivity.

“We see smoking less and less, so it's helpful to remind everyone in the state how expensive smoking is for all of us,” Mason said.

Advocates want to see state tobacco prevention funding reach the recommended Center for Disease Control figure - $52.9 million.

The Start Noticing educational campaign relied on a state grant, which ended in October. At that time, Ewald shifted his focus to encouraging smoke-free housing.

“It was a bummer because it was a good program in this area,” he said.

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