ST. PAUL — The Minnesota House Preventive Health Policy Division has voted to advance State Rep. Cedrick Frazier’s bill (HF 904) to end the sale of all flavored tobacco products in Minnesota.

Advocates with Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation — a coalition of more than 60 organizations that share a common goal of reducing youth tobacco addiction and ending tobacco’s harm for good — testified in support of the bill. Removing flavored tobacco products from the marketplace is an important step to prevent youth addiction, improve lung health and encourage adults to quit.

“Minnesota has been a leader in taking on tobacco addiction, but we continue to play catch-up with a deadly industry that spends $100 million a year marketing their products in our state,” Rep. Frazier, chief author of the bill, said. “Ending flavored tobacco product sales is an important next step in our efforts to reduce tobacco use and to protect kids from lifetime addiction. We cannot let Big Tobacco’s profits dictate our stance on tobacco regulation. Let’s put the health of our kids — and the health of our Black brothers and sisters — ahead of Big Tobacco profits, so that we all may live healthier and longer lives.”

Flavored tobacco products drive youth tobacco use, which remains at epidemic levels. More than eight in 10 youth who ever tried tobacco started with a flavored tobacco product, and seven in 10 youth say they use e-cigarettes “because they come in flavors [they] like.” Today an estimated 3.6 million young Americans use e-cigarettes. The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey found 26 percent of 11th-graders and 11 percent of 8th-graders use e-cigarettes (a 54 percent and 95 percent increase, respectively, since 2016). A comprehensive approach is needed to protect the next generation from lifelong tobacco addiction.

Menthol flavorings in particular give a cooling sensation and mask tobacco’s harshness, making it easier to start smoking and harder to quit, especially among African American smokers. The tobacco industry has used menthol flavors to racially segment and target certain customers, especially Black Americans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) communities, and youth.

For decades, the tobacco industry has deployed aggressive advertising in Black magazines and neighborhoods, and used other tactics designed to hook African Americans on menthol cigarettes. These strategies worked. In the 1950s, fewer than 10 percent of Black American smokers used menthols. Today, 85 percent of Black smokers do, compared to 29 percent of white smokers. The exclusion of menthol tobacco in a federal 2009 ban on flavored cigarettes has institutionalized these disparities and cost thousands of Black lives.

“For over 60 years, Big Tobacco has marketed menthol cigarettes to African Americans. They advertised in Black publications and neighborhoods, sponsored concerts, and even drove around Black neighborhoods handing out free menthols,” said LaTrisha Vetaw, Director of Health Policy and Advocacy at NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center and co-chair of the Menthol Coalition. “One side effect of the tobacco industry’s campaign is that today some people think menthol tobacco is a Black thing. Let me make this clear: menthol is not a Black thing, it’s a tobacco industry marketing thing. We can’t wait another decade or two to address the harms of menthol cigarettes and flavored vapes. Let’s build on Minnesota’s leadership of strong, bipartisan tobacco prevention by passing this bill.”

Clearing the market of all flavored tobacco products will create a healthier future for Minnesota kids and directly improve the health of communities targeted by Big Tobacco. The COVID-19 pandemic adds urgency to these efforts, since current and former smokers are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. To make matters worse, communities targeted by the tobacco industry, including Black and Indigenous Minnesotans, are some of the hardest hit by COVID-19.

In late December, the Minnesota House Select Committee on Racial Justice issued extensive policy recommendations to address racial disparities. The committee recommended that Minnesota remove menthol and all flavored tobacco products from the marketplace.

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