Anti-smoking group delays grants
The Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco (MPAAT) delayed approval Wednesday of $2.8 million in antismoking grants, saying it first needs to address recent criticism about its funding of smoking bans and lack of programs to help smokers quit.
Dr. Richard Hurt, chairman of the nonprofit group's board, also announced at the bimonthly board meeting that MPAAT is seeking a hearing to clarify its activities before Ramsey County District Judge Michael Fetsch, who has judicial authority over the group.
Attorney General Mike Hatch, who asked MPAAT last week to stop its political activities and return its focus to cessation, said he was pleased by the decision. "We will make a motion so that the matter can be heard in court," he said.
One of the key architects in MPAAT's creation, Minneapolis attorney Mike Ciresi, urged the group Wednesday to return to its original mandate and look for ways to help smokers who want to quit.
"I felt that cessation did mean individuals would be helped by this organization," Ciresi told the board. "It is essential for this board to do that and to leverage the funds that you have."
Ciresi said cessation was the intent behind MPAAT's creation in 1998. The group received $202 million of the $6.1 billion court settlement between the state and the tobacco industry.
The group's charter said it would help smokers quit and fund related research.
However, as the Star Tribune reported in November, MPAAT shifted its cessation strategy and began to fund antismoking groups seeking smoking bans in bars and restaurants in Minnesota cities. The campaigns have been divisive and largely unsuccessful.
MPAAT's only current cessation program is a telephone hot line that refers about two-thirds of the callers to their individual health plans for assistance in quitting.
MPAAT claims it can't pursue cessation because it duplicates programs offered by health insurers. But Ciresi, while noting MPAAT board members' dedication, said they had misinterpreted their charter and can offer services similar to those of health care providers.
MPAAT board member and Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm thanked Ciresi for "giving us a re-grounding in the origins of the organization." She said the board should "listen closely to the issues that are being raised" and "explain why we made the decisions we did."
MPAAT also has been asked to explain its activities at the state Legislature next Tuesday. Members of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee will question the group about its change in strategy, allegations of favoritism toward MPAAT insiders and its funding priorities.
Committee Chairman Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, recalled the last time MPAAT appeared before his committee. "They told us . . . they were strictly limited by the court settlement to cessation [programs]."
Bradley said the committee also will ask MPAAT about its grant process. Of the $4.6 million in grants awarded in 2000, 82 percent went to individuals and groups with ties to MPAAT's board or its advisory committees, an analysis by the Star Tribune showed.
"That's been a longstanding concern," Bradley said.
He added that the hearing would not evaluate MPAAT's principles. "I'm just trying to evaluate the process."
The Legislature has no legal authority over MPAAT, but Bradley said that isn't the point.
"If they want credibility in their prevention efforts, I would hope the MPAAT board would recognize their responsibility to public opinion," he said. "If that doesn't happen, I think the pressure is going to mount."