Over the last several decades, tobacco use has dropped significantly here in Minnesota and across the country. But some Minnesotans continue to suffer disproportionately from tobacco-related diseases. The reality today is that smoking—as well as other forms of tobacco use—remain the norm in many minority and low-income communities.

Recently we worked with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and DeYoung Consulting Services to take an in-depth look at these inequities—exploring why they are so pervasive and how we can address them. We knew we needed to speak directly with community members to truly understand their beliefs, priorities, and needs around tobacco use. So together, we launched a series of community-specific, in-person input sessions to encourage open, honest dialogue about tobacco.

As partners, we each brought unique expertise to this work. Combining our individual knowledge and skills helped us to reveal some of the root causes of tobacco-related inequities—as well as some practical strategies for creating prevention efforts that work.

  • MDH shared their deep and substantive expertise on the public health implications of tobacco use as well as on health-related inequalities—which allowed us to ask the right research questions in the right communities.
  • Community-based organizations and leaders—as well as individual residents themselves—shared their expertise on the realities faced by low-income communities—which allowed us to gather in-depth, firsthand insight into why tobacco continues to plague certain segments of our population.
  • The Improve Group and DeYoung Consulting teams brought technical expertise and skills in research, evaluation, and community engagement—which enabled us to engage study participants and draw out the most accurate data and reflections. 

Through a truly collaborative process, we were able to build trusting relationships with community stakeholders, to facilitate meaningful conversations on issues related to tobacco use and, ultimately, to reveal new opportunities for action.

For example, through our outreach efforts, we learned there is a severe shortage of culturally- and community-specific materials that effectively communicate the risks of tobacco use. As a result, misconceptions about tobacco are common among certain groups of Minnesotans. Community members told us that culturally-relevant and peer-to-peer campaigns would make a significant difference. So to take action, MDH will focus on working directly with communities to develop compelling, relevant messaging for anti-tobacco public awareness campaigns. (Our findings and opportunities for action are being used to refine the parameters for MDH’s Tobacco Free Communities grant program: for more, read the executive summary or the full report).

Our comprehensive community input process unearthed some overarching recommendations to strengthen future tobacco prevention work. Using a health equity lens is crucial when designing any tobacco-related programming. And as tobacco use is so closely tied to a lack of economic and educational opportunity, it should be recognized as a social justice issue as well as a public health concern.

But perhaps most critically, community-based organizations are integral to designing and leading tobacco prevention efforts. By supporting leadership development within communities and creating strong partnerships between communities, policymakers, and funders, we can begin to eliminate disparities and support better health for all.