Hooked: Stories about how Colorado is addicted to nicotine and the money behind tobacco

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17min 57sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A store in Westminster sells tobacco and vaping products. Jan. 8, 2024.

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 childhood education, it should find room for it in the general budget, instead of putting the cost on people addicted to tobacco and nicotine.

Even some supporters of the original tax measure from 2020 are uncomfortable with what they see as a Faustian bargain.

Tobacco and vaping rates are falling but products are still easy for teens to get their hands on

Nov. 21, 2023

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Super Smoke Shop on Leetsdale Avenue in Denver is about a block from George Washington High School.

Youth vaping rates nationally and in Colorado have dropped in recent years. But one in six Colorado high schoolers currently use e-cigarettes.

In many neighborhoods, it appears to be relatively easy for a minor to buy vapes or cigarettes in a nearby store, according to data from the city of Denver and the most recent survey of youth statewide.

This is important because retail sales are key to how hard or easy it is for young people to consume highly addictive tobacco and nicotine products. Tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disease in the U.S. and in Colorado. Each year, nearly 500,000 people nationally die from tobacco-related diseases. That includes more than 5,000 Colorado lives.

Teens that CPR News spoke to said despite the risk, the products are easy to get and are found just about everywhere.

Lawyer on Denver Health board says he’s stopped lobbying for tobacco giant Altria after getting a call to resign

Dec. 13, 2023

John Hickenlooper
Brennan Linsley/AP
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper arrives for a news conference inside his office at the state Capitol, in Denver, Thursday, May 7, 2015.

Former city attorney and now lobbyist Doug Friednash has sat on the board of Denver Health, the state’s flagship safety net hospital, for more than a year after former Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who was listed as a reference on Friednash’s application, appointed him. 

Friednash’s filing lists a diverse portfolio of 19 clients, including Altria, Sports Betting Alliance, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, vape company Puffco, and Suncor Energy.

Friednash was paid by Altria to lobby against a proposed ban on flavored tobacco in Denver, a policy actively supported by Denver Health, as well a similar measure in the state legislature. Both proposals failed. The measure in Denver died when Hancock issued just his second veto in 12 years in office.

But as of Nov. 30, the entry for Altria, formerly Philip Morris, includes an end date, indicating that he no longer represents the tobacco giant, which has been investing billions in alternatives to traditional cigarettes, like vaping products, as rates of cigarette smoking fall.

The teens who made Colorado No. 1 in underage vaping 5 years ago are now young adults, and they’re still using

Jan. 16, 2024

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Nicotine products for sale at a City Park West convenience store in Denver, Sept. 30, 2019.

At one point, before the pandemic, Colorado led the nation in youth vaping, topping 37 states surveyed for use of electronic cigarettes among high school students, according to numbers from a CDC study. A quarter of those Colorado students said they currently used an electronic vapor product —  double the national average. Almost 6 percent said they used them frequently.

“What vaping has done, getting high schoolers, in some cases even middle schoolers, hooked on vaping, is now playing out,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a parent of two teens himself. He said vape companies followed the tobacco industry playbook with a similar impact on young consumers. “They're still hooked. This is a very addictive product.” 

While the number of middle and high schoolers who vape has dropped, usage has increased among young adults ages 18 to 24.

Quitting tobacco begins improving health within minutes — and it’s good for your wallet, too

March 27, 2024

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Teresa Haga-Golasewski from Centennial visits the Capitol to lawmakers about cancer and tobacco-related bills. She quit smoking menthol cigarettes at 52, but not until she’d developed small cell lung cancer and got pneumonia as well.

A group of volunteers gathered in a church across the street from the state Capitol on a recent day in Denver. 

Teresa Haga-Golasewski from Centennial was there. She showed a family photo. “And here's my mom with her cigarette and there's my nephew and he was little!” she said with a laugh.

In the image, there are perhaps half a dozen people. Haga-Golasewski, 62, noted all the adults are smoking. “I probably wouldn't have smoked, if my mom hadn't smoked,” she said. 

The volunteers, organized by the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, came here to talk to lawmakers about cancer and tobacco-related bills, as part of the Colorado Cancer Action Day.

Haga-Golasewski’s story is familiar, especially to those who’ve become hooked on cigarettes.