How Colorado is addicted to nicotine and the money in tobacco

CPR News spent nearly a year talking with teenagers, parents, doctors, advocates, researchers, political figures and others. We’ve looked through once-secret internal industry documents released by tobacco companies and listened to many hours of city and legislative debate. What we found is that the conversation about tobacco products, especially flavored ones like menthol, is not only about nicotine’s deadly effects or the impact on local economies. It’s about ethics, optics and equity.

How the tobacco industry made it cool to smoke in Colorado’s communities of color

May. 9, 2023


Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Tekyra Miles in the Manual High School library after an open mic event on April 13, 2023.

Tekyra Miles knows all too well the dangers of cigarette smoking. Her grandmother Patricia was a longtime smoker. Though Patricia had quit, she was hospitalized with health problems related to smoking.

“She got put in ICU and they kept on saying, like, ‘your lungs are failing, like your lungs are failing,’” Miles said. “And I think if she didn’t smoke, she would’ve came out of the hospital alive.” Patricia was in her early 60s.

Miles’ grandmother’s preferred choice was Newport, a menthol cigarette, made by R.J. Reynolds, the country’s second-largest tobacco company. 

Tobacco corporations have exacerbated existing health disparities by directly marketing flavored tobacco products to communities of color — including in Colorado. That historic targeting has made tobacco consumption hard to resist, meaning that where you live, and what race you identify as, are more likely to lead you down a road to long-term health problems.

For those who have fought big tobacco, lobbyist’s presence on Denver Health board is ‘a contradiction’

Jul. 13, 2023

Michael Hancock

David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, center, looks on from a courtside seat as the Denver Nuggets host the Indiana Pacers in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Denver on Monday, Jan. 28, 2013.

In his final year as Denver mayor, Michael Hancock made the largely unnoticed appointment, nominating friend and influential political figure Doug Friednash, a lobbyist with powerhouse firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, to the board of Denver Health. The City Council approved the pick with little fanfare.

The city’s online application for boards and commissions makes no requirement to give specifics about an applicant’s background, other than providing a resume or biography and agreeing to a background check.

To the question “Is there anything that would adversely affect public confidence in your appointment or service?” Friednash checked “No.”

The biography Friednash provided didn’t name any of a long list of his clients, including one of the world’s largest tobacco corporations: Altria, formerly known as Phillip Morris. Another client not listed was the city itself, for which Friednash lobbies in the nation’s capital. Denver has paid his firm $370,000 to lobby in Washington since 2020, according to Opensecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in U.S. politics.

In Pueblo, where 60% of high school students report vaping, efforts to curb youth tobacco use are getting creative

Aug. 11, 2023

John Daley/CPR News

Pueblo County hosted Carnival Day April 29, 2023, to celebrate a program called Southern Colorado Youth Go at Mineral Palace Park in Pueblo.

By Tony Gorman

Pueblo County has seen a two-percent decline in overall tobacco use in recent years. But, officials have seen the use of e-cigarettes and electronic smoking devices increase at a similar rate.

Pueblo’s Latino community, one of the largest in the state, makes up 44 percent of the population. A 2020 study by the Pueblo County Health Department found that 60 percent of high school students in the county reported vaping.

Sylvia Ramos, the program director for Victim Services for Servicios De La Raza in Pueblo, said vaping tends to be higher among teens of color due to access.

“They’re so easy to get. They can get them online. They can get them through friends,” Ramos said. She also said kids are getting vaping products past their parents because there’s a lack of education surrounding the products.

The unlikely affiliation between universal pre-K and nicotine taxes is a story of politics and tobacco money

Oct. 24, 2023


John Daley/CPR News

John Opp and daughter Giuliana at the Isabella Bird Community School in Denver. Opp’s family relies on Colorado’s new universal pre-k program to help cover her tuition at Isabella Bird, where she gets great support from teachers and therapists.

Colorado voters in 2020 approved raising hundreds of millions of dollars to establish the state’s universal pre-K program, which currently enrolls more than 40,000 kids. The money for the program comes, in part, from taxes on cigarettes, vapes and other tobacco and nicotine products.

Critics of this funding model argue that if Colorado wants to prioritize early…

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