ANR UPDATE, 36(1), Spring 2017
Big Tobacco Front Groups & Allies: Déjà Vu
Big Tobacco and its army of lobbyists and front groups are - if nothing else - opportunists. They are always looking for any chance to undermine tobacco prevention policies regardless of which political party controls a state legislature or the White House.
After elections, with a fresh batch of new lawmakers in office, the bandwidth of public debate is often taken up by other issues. This can be a good time for tobacco interests to seek the weakening of smokefree laws, preemption of local governments, defunding of tobacco prevention programs and agencies, and even embedding of allies into key agency roles. The current political moment is no different. It is our job as citizens and advocates to be aware of and to call out any attacks on smokefree protections and our right to breathe smokefree air.
Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services, repeatedly voted against bills that could harm Big Tobacco when he served in the Georgia Legislature. He has also received thousands of dollars in political contributions from tobacco interests and has held significant investments in tobacco companies, although he claims he was unaware of these investments.
Steve Milloy, currently on the administration's EPA Transition Team, has enjoyed a lucrative and lengthy relationship with Big Tobacco. He helped create front groups like "The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition," which promoted tobacco industry "junk science" messaging that was designed to raise doubt about the health hazards of secondhand smoke and to attack legitimate health studies, such as the landmark 1993 EPA Report, which classified secondhand smoke as a Class A carcinogen. In 2006, ANR published a report, "Steven J. Milloy: The "Junkman" Exposed which is still relevant today. (/pdf/stevenmilloy.pdf)
Myron Ebell, Director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a libertarian advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. that is financed in part by the coal industry, was the head of the EPA transition team. Ebell has been a longtime Big Tobacco ally at the CEI. Tobacco companies have funded CEI to pump out papers and opinion articles opposing tobacco policy. CEI has fought repeatedly on the tobacco industry's behalf in battles with government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the EPA.
At least a dozen lawyers from Jones Day, a law firm that has long represented the tobacco companies, and especially RJ Reynolds, at multiple levels in multiple forums, have key posts in the new Administration. For example, Noel Francisco, who has been representing the tobacco industry in the Justice Department's racketeering case against the industry, is now serving as the Acting Solicitor General at the Department, even as the industry appeals the remedies required by the decision in that case, including the making of corrective statements.
Big Tobacco: Philip Morris' "Smokefree"
Philip Morris recently issued a "Smokefree Manifesto" proclaiming that the company supports a smokefree future, notwithstanding the fact that for decades Philip Morris has been the primary obstacle to providing smokefree protections for people in the U.S and much of the world. The company now says it wants smokers to transition to other products, such as heated tobacco products, instead of cigarette smoking.
What's behind this "manifesto"? Clearly, the smokefree movement has made a significant impact on tobacco product sales and profits. The industry creates these public relations gimmicks so that the companies appear to be socially responsible, caring companies. Actually, tobacco companies are not normal companies -they are profiteering pariahs who knowingly and willingly created a product that harms their users and innocent, nonsmoking bystanders and who continue to aggressively market their product around the world despite knowing its deadly effects.
It's ironic that tobacco giant Philip Morris is now trying to co-opt the term "smokefree," but it's worth noting that its interpretation of smokefree is very different than ours. The industry has created a new class of heated tobacco products, presumably to be used inside smokefree environments so it can keep people addicted to nicotine with these alternative products. Philip Morris has spent decades lying about the health impact of secondhand smoke and working to undermine people's right to breathe smokefree air. Its decades of scheming, lobbying, and litigating in order to maintain indoor smoking in all sorts of venues - from teachers lounges, offices, and airplanes to restaurants, bars and casinos - has created significant delays in establishing smokefree laws. It also means that there have been millions of deaths from secondhand smoke exposure that otherwise could have been prevented. And, even today, many people, especially casino and bar workers, are still heavily exposed to secondhand smoke as a result of tobacco industry policy interference.
Big Tobacco: R.J. Reynolds Co-Opts
In 1992, R.J. Reynolds proposed its "Different View" strategy to improve its reputation with minority communities. This was based on the following premise: "Blacks and Hispanics traditionally link their trial and purchase of products, and their legislative and editorial support, directly to their understanding and belief that a company cares about their communities and issues." 1
Big tobacco is at it again. As efforts across the country succeed in restricting sales of menthol tobacco products, the tobacco industry has dusted off its tried and true playbook to co-opt the trust of the black community - its largest consumer market share.
The Reverend Al Sharpton, arguably one of the nation's most recognized advocates for social justice, and other community leaders are colluding with R.J. Reynolds to oppose efforts to restrict the sale of menthol tobacco products. Their reasons: menthol bans will further "criminalize the black community" and will give law enforcement a reason to target and take action on African-Americans. The framing is a shameful attempt to capitalize on the tension resonating in African-American communities throughout the country. Are we to think that RJ Reynolds is concerned about the criminalization of the black community? Or, is Reynolds working to protect a lucrative market base?
Sharpton, instead, should be advocating for the menthol ban. The evidence is clear that menthol tobacco products are more heavily marketed to African-Americans. Indeed, more than 80% of African-American smokers are menthol smokers (compared to 30% of Latinos and 20% of Caucasians). While the tobacco industry's history of targeting the African-American community is often cloaked by its generous community contributions, scholarship initiatives, and other forms of "corporate responsibility," it is no secret that the health of African-Americans is most impacted by cancer, heart disease, and stroke - all of which are associated with smoking and secondhand smoke exposure.
So why, then, would anyone advocating for empowering the African-American community team up with an industry that has a long and documented history of profiling and targeting that same community for economic profits at the expense of those lives?
Once again, the tobacco industry has co-opted African-American leadership and turned it into an opportunity to diffuse the industry's opposition and further peddle its business model for death and disease on vulnerable populations. When it comes to industry tactics, some things never change.
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