Smoke and Mirrors

Two years after picking billions of dollars out of Big Tobacco's pocket, state officials are still having trouble polishing their next trick: Figuring out how to spend it

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]

The wind whipping through downtown Minneapolis is uncharacteristically cold for early October. Gales from the west slice past the Target Center and gust helter-skelter across the vacant Block E. It's frigid outside First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry, and steam rises from the streams of teenagers trickling out of the club's Sunday-evening all-ages show.

The mood outside is slightly volatile. Voodoo Glow Skulls headlined. Two bands on the bill walked offstage early, and some irritation is spilling onto the sidewalk. A gangly kid sporting black-rimmed Poindexter glasses and a new, optic-yellow Eminem 'do is being given the bum's rush. "Fuck you, First Avenue!" he yells. "Yeah, and fuck you too," he says softly to a friend who throws him his jacket from inside. Within a few minutes tensions ease as teenagers form clusters on the sidewalk, most of them trying to figure out how to cram into the too-few borrowed cars for the ride home.

Many are smoking. There is no pretense of sophistication or coolness to the act. It's done in that hand-in-the-cookie-jar kind of way. They make repeated attempts to light sweat-soaked matches into the wind. They inhale too deeply. They shift their cigarettes from hand to hand, eyes darting around self-consciously.

Standing at the center of one cluster is the kid who was just 86ed. He's 16 years old, he lives in Golden Valley, he was getting picked on by some bullies he knows from school. He doesn't smoke, but he seems only mildly irritated by the clouds that drift up around his head.

"I hate that shit," he says. "Smoking is stupid. But I don't care if someone chooses to do it."

That sentiment is hardly shared by Minnesota public-health officials, who have just rolled out the biggest teen antismoking campaign in the state's history. This young man has seen the edgy, youth-oriented ads produced by the campaign known as Target Market, and he understands the strategy--kids his age blasting Big Tobacco for conspiring to hook youths on cigarettes. But he still doesn't buy it.

"Look, I don't think it should be up to the government to tell us what to do," he says. "Number one, it seems like a victory ad for the politicians who are in favor of the tobacco settlement. And number two, why don't they go after alcohol? It's just government trying to enforce people's opinions."

He's soon surrounded by a group of teens eager to talk about Target Market. A stocky 16-year-old from northeast Minneapolis says he has smoked since he was 11, mostly because his parents did. "I've heard the ads on the radio, but if I wanna smoke, I smoke," he says. Sure, the ads have made him think about quitting, he continues, but he "was probably gonna quit pretty soon anyway."

A few of the teens say they like Target Market's commercials and billboards. "I don't smoke, because my parents do," says a 17-year-old from Minnetonka. "Target Market shows that someone's finally getting after the tobacco companies," he adds.

Indeed, the campaign plays heavily on the irony: Thanks to the state's landmark out-of-court settlement with the nation's largest tobacco companies in 1998, Minnesota is punishing Big Tobacco with its own dirty dollars. But there's a deeper irony at work as well, one that's entirely unintentional. Two and a half years after the trial ended, Target Market is the settlement's sole visible outgrowth. Though they were barely into adolescence when the lawsuit that pitted the State of Minnesota and Blue Cross and Blue Shield against Big Tobacco peaked nearly three years ago, these kids know about the settlement. They know that the $6.1 billion the state stands to collect is supposed to be used to fight the good fight. With that much money, smoking might really be eradicated. But like most Minnesotans, they have only a vague notion of how the money is being spent. And, as tends to be the case when unfathomable numbers are bandied about, some teens harbor suspicions that the money will end up being absorbed by the sponge of big government. The victory and its heady afterglow have long since dissipated.

The settlement's supporters--and its beneficiaries--assert confidently that the tobacco-industry money will be the most effective and important expenditure the state will ever make. Others, however, remain uncertain, pointing out that the apparatus is complex, and that it shields from the public eye the activities of some of the entities on the receiving end.

Of course, for the time being, those activities are largely the province of Target Market.

"I just started smoking," says a 16-year-old Gothed-out girl from Hopkins, dawdling outside First Avenue. "But I think the ads are awesome! It makes me question smoking, but I'll probably still do it."

A hyperblond nonsmoker from Minnetonka takes a dimmer view. "I just don't like it," he says. "It's just a bunch of whiny turds with too much time telling us what to do. They should get off our backs."

 

May 8, 1998: Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey III strides out of the Ramsey County courthouse, where he has spent the past four months trying a landmark lawsuit against five tobacco companies, and convenes a press conference at the Radisson Hotel in downtown St. Paul. After a furious round of last-minute negotiations, with the jury on the verge of deliberations, word has leaked out that the plaintiffs have secured a major concession from Big Tobacco. It couldn't have come at a better time for Humphrey, who had withstood much criticism and pressure since he filed the suit in August 1994, and who has just set out on a campaign for the governor's mansion. Now, clad in a dark suit, Humphrey gleefully works his way through the throng of cameras and microphones.

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