Hatch pushes to reallocate tobacco money to research

Robyn Repya

The University could gain millions of dollars for tobacco research if Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch is successful in a court motion to reallocate money from the state’s tobacco settlement.

Last week, Hatch filed a court motion to separate the Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco from tobacco settlement money it is in charge of distributing in accordance with a court order.

Hatch said MPAAT – an entity created by the attorney general’s office – is not using the money for its original intentions. He’s recommending to the court that the money instead be diverted to the Minnesota Department of Health for dispersal and to the University for research.

Sandra Gardebring, University Relations vice president, resigned from the MPAAT board of directors in March because of concerns over how the money was being distributed.

In her letter of resignation to Hatch, Gardebring said the organization was rife with conflicts of interest, including her position on the board.

“More than 80 percent of the grants made by MPAAT were to organizations whose employees or board members also serve as MPAAT Board or advisory committee members,” she wrote.

Of the $6.5 billion tobacco settlement, Hatch said MPAAT has $100 million to be used for tobacco research and another $100 million set aside for smoking cessation.

Andrea Mowery, MPAAT’s director of external communications, said reducing tobacco’s harm is the top priority.

She said the organization has a “scientifically designed approach” and is using the money appropriately and effectively.

MPAAT uses the money to institute smoke-free areas, maintain a help line for people who want to quit, and fund an advertising campaign against tobacco use.

“Some people may disagree with our methods, but we’re really committed to saving lives,” she said.

Hatch disagrees with the group’s approach and said MPAAT “totally failed.”

“They have not set up anything to help people stop smoking – they send you a pet rock,” he said.

The “pet rock” Hatch referred to is a worry stone, part of a kit an individual would receive in the mail after calling MPAAT’s help line.

Hatch said the kit also contains stickers, toothpicks, paper clips and tea, intended as diversions for smokers when they have a craving.

He said the kit, in addition to the organization’s promotion of indoor smoke-free areas, does not meet court-ordered guidelines.

Hatch said he is also concerned much of the money earmarked for research is used to study why different groups of people smoke, not how to help them quit.

Hatch said it’s the court’s decision where the money for research goes, but he thinks the University Medical School is appropriately equipped to handle medical research.

“The University is one of the leading recipients of grants in the world,” Hatch said.

Dr. Gary Hanovich, Minnesota Medical Association president, said Hatch has a lawyer’s perspective of the research and said the programs MPAAT has been working on, such as smoke-free areas, are helping people combat the harm of smoking.

Hanovich said non-smokers are even more susceptible because their bodies aren’t used to the chemicals.

“Secondhand smoke kills 100,000 people a year,” he said.

He said MPAAT’s smoking cessation methods don’t necessarily need to involve nicotine patches.

“The evidence for the patches and Wellbutrin isn’t wonderful stuff,” he said.

Hanovich said although there is room for improvement, overall, MPAAT has done a good job.

“We disagree with Attorney General Hatch because we feel the chunk of money has been accounted for,” he said.