Lawmakers to scrutinize anti-smoking group's activities
The Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco (MPAAT) defended its pursuit of smoking bans in its 2002 biennial report to the state legislature and Ramsey County District Court. But the report is unlikely to deflect tough questions today when the n
Rep. Fran Bradley, R-Rochester, the committee chairwoman, said members are expected to ask about MPAAT's change in funding strategy. A court order established MPAAT in 1998 and gave the group $202 million -- $102 million to be used to help Minnesotans quit smoking. Instead, the organization decided to fund groups seeking smoking bans in restaurants and bars in cities statewide. The efforts have been divisive and have failed in most communities.
At MPAAT's board of directors meeting last week, attorney Mike Ciresi, who led the state's legal team in its 1998 trial against the tobacco industry, said MPAAT was created to help smokers quit voluntarily.
Attorney General Mike Hatch also urged the organization to return to its original cessation mission after he received numerous complaints from throughout the state. Hatch has asked Ramsey County District Judge Michael Fetsch to clarify the group's court-mandated mission.
But MPAAT's report made it clear that its emphasis lies elsewhere. Although MPAAT's report discussed a "social environmental approach" at length, it didn't specifically address smoking bans. It repeatedly cited the success of tobacco-control programs in Massachusetts and California but downplayed the role that increasing tobacco taxes played in reducing smoking in both states. MPAAT never pursued an increase in Minnesota's tobacco taxes as a strategy, although an increase has now been proposed by Gov. Jesse Ventura as part of his plan to reduce the state's budget deficit.
Several times, the MPAAT report cited a California study that showed a dramatic drop in lung cancer rates between 1988 and 1997. However, the report did not point out that California enacted the strictest air pollution-control law in the nation in 1988, which some experts argue had more to do with the drop in lung cancer rates than smoking. Moreover, California's statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants took effect in 1998, a year after the lung cancer study was completed.
The committee also is expected to question MPAAT about its insider funding.
A Star Tribune analysis in November showed that of $4.5 million in grant money awarded, 82 percent went to individuals or groups with ties to MPAAT's board of directors or its advisory committees.
The MPAAT report said organizations represented by board members could be funded, but only if board members recused themselves from discussion or voting on the particular grant. In July 2000, during voting on the first round of grants, several board members whose organizations were grant finalists neither left the meeting nor recused themselves from voting.
The biennial report offered a brief description for each grant but offered no progress reports or updates. The Department of Health releases progress reports from its grantees. MPAAT, although funded with state money, says it is exempt from the law requiring state agencies to make such disclosures. According to its attorney, Tom Pursell, the organization "is a private nonprofit. It is free from a lot of the governmental processes which are also part of the obstacle to the formation and deployment of effective tobacco control."
MPAAT plans to release grant summaries after the projects are completed.
The report also went into detail on the data analysis conducted on results of MPAAT's $223,000 smoking survey of Minnesota smokers. However, it never explained why the survey results have never been released in their entirety, as MPAAT had promised. The report said only that MPAAT planned to commit $100,000 toward another survey to be conducted in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Health this year.