The campaign is spearheaded by a website - WhatAreYouSmoking.org - which entices the public (the target audience appears to be youths) into signing a petition to support the idea of granting the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products by noting that cigarettes contain over 4,000 toxic chemicals and why shouldn't they be regulated?
"Cigarettes contain 4000+ chemicals. They should be regulated to protect kids and save lives."
The website mentions nothing about the drawbacks of the legislation, hiding the most critical fact of all: that the legislation is being supported by none other than Philip Morris itself, the nation's largest cigarette company.
If you then provide your name and email address, you pledge your support for the proposed FDA legislation (without knowing that you are pledging your support for a bill that Philip Morris desperately wants Congress to enact), and you automatically become a Tobacco-Free Kids e-champion (so that you can receive email updates).
If you then click on the link to sign the petition, you will see the following message:
"Fill out the form below to sign the petition and be a part of the growing effort to make sure Congress gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco products."
The petition itself states:
"WHEREAS, Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States and is responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year;
WHEREAS, Every day another 1200 Americans die because of tobacco and more than 1,000 kids become new regular smokers. Nearly 90 percent of all smokers begin smoking in their teens or earlier;
WHEREAS, Tobacco use costs the United States more than $96 billion a year in health care bills;
WHEREAS, Tobacco industry marketing expenditures increased by 123 percent since 1998 to a record $15.4 billion in 2003, according to the Federal Trade Commission; and
BE IT RESOLVED the undersigned has endorsed this petition and urges Congress to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products."
After you sign the petition, you will receive the following email from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids:
"Thank you for visiting WhatAreYouSmoking.com and taking action to help protect America's kids by supporting legislation before Congress to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco products.
Tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death in America. Every year, smoking and other tobacco use kill more than 400,000 Americans and cost the nation more than $96 billion in health care bills. Every day, another 1,200 lives are lost and more than 1,000 kids become new regular smokers.
Please be sure to visit WhatAreYouSmoking.com again and check for updates and new ways you can help. With your support we will beat Big Tobacco and save lives."
It appears to me that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is enticing kids to support the proposed FDA tobacco legislation without informing them of what the bill actually is, what its drawbacks are, and the critical fact that it is in fact supported by the largest company within Big Tobacco.
In fact, the Campaign is actively deceiving kids into thinking that Big Tobacco is uniformly opposed to the legislation. In its message back to the kids who sign the petition, they tell the kids that their support for the legislation is going to help to "beat Big Tobacco." This clearly gives the impression that Big Tobacco is fighting the proposed legislation. Of course, this is untrue - as we know, Philip Morris is actually supporting the legislation.
This campaign is deceptive even for a reader who is an expert in the regulatory issues involved. I myself was deceived and I signed the petition. I in fact agree with everything in the petition. I would urge Congress to give the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products. In fact, I supported legislation introduced in previous years (prior to the deal that was struck with Philip Morris in 2004) that would have done just that. And so I joined the effort to "make sure Congress gives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco products."
Then, to my surprise, I found out that what I had actually signed was not a petition to urge Congress to give the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products, but a petition to support specific legislation that had been introduced which would severely limit the ability of the FDA to regulate tobacco products.
What a surprise when the email returned from the Campaign thanking me for "supporting legislation before Congress to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco products."
I intended to do nothing of the sort. I was told that I was simply signing a petition to express support for the idea of giving the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products. Nowhere did it indicate that the petition was actually to support a specific piece of legislation. On the petition web page, there is no mention of any specific legislation. And there is no mention of any details of the specific legislation that would allow me or anyone else to make an informed decision about whether I want my name associated with supporting that legislation.
While I agreed to express my support for the notion of granting the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products, I sure as hell did not give the Campaign permission to use my name in support of specific legislation - about which I was not informed on the web page - that would severely limit the FDA's ability to regulate tobacco products, that is supported by Philip Morris, that would ensure that nicotine could not be removed from cigarettes, and that would eliminate the possibility of finding and making available truly lower risk tobacco products.
I think there would be hundreds - perhaps thousands - of kids around the country who would be appalled to find out that they had inadvertently and unknowingly supported legislation that is being championed by Philip Morris.
Imagine if we could get the names of all the kids who signed on to petition and then we wrote them to inform them that they had just expressed their support for legislation that was being championed by Philip Morris to protect the financial interests of the nation's largest cigarette company. I imagine they would be appalled. And more importantly, that they would be shocked. Certainly, this is a fact they should have known about before they were enticed into signing the petition, not afterwards.
Furthermore, what would those kids say if we wrote them to inform them that rather than give the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products, the legislation would actually severely limit the FDA's authority to do so?
What if we wrote those kids to tell them that although they weren't informed about it, the legislation for which they had just pledged their support actually limits the ability of FDA to regulate tobacco products, granting the tobacco companies unprecedented special protections enjoyed by no other companies whose products are regulated by the FDA?
What if we told the kids, for example, that the legislation would prohibit the FDA from outlawing the sale of tobacco products at youth community centers, youth arcades, youth amusement centers, amusement parks, bowling alleys, or candy stores?
What if we emailed the kids who had just signed the petition and informed them that they had just unknowingly pledged their support for legislation that precludes the FDA from eliminating the addictive nicotine in cigarettes, ensuring that the tobacco companies will always be able to addict new generations of their peers?
And that the legislation gives Congress specific veto power over any major FDA rules so that Big Tobacco can block any regulations that it doesn't like simply by exercising its political power?
And that the legislation blocks the FDA from raising the legal age of purchase of cigarettes?
And that the legislation ensures that new products which would actually reduce the harms of smoking will never be researched, developed, and marketed?
And that the legislation contains special provisions, inserted solely to appease Philip Morris, that would protect Big Tobacco profits at the expense of the protection of the public's health?
I don't think those kids would be too happy about it. In fact, I'm quite sure that many, if not most or all of those kids would feel tricked, duped, deceived, misled, and manipulated. And they would be angry.
The bad news is that this campaign is only a small part of a much larger effort in which kids are being taken advantage of and misused to support the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' legislative agenda, without their fully informed consent. The Campaign is organizing Kick Butts Day this Wednesday, an event which appears to me to be designed to exploit kids' naivete in order to advance the Campaign's own political aims.
As its March 22 press release makes clear, more than 2,000 youth events are planned across the nation for Kick Butts Day. This year, "Kick Butts Day is raising awareness about the thousands of chemicals in each puff of cigarette smoke and the need for elected officials at all levels to step up the fight to reduce smoking and other tobaccco use."
That may sound fine, but if you read the press release further, you see that the actual purpose of Kick Butts Day appears to be to use kids as pawns in a political maneuver without their consent. The actual purpose -- unbeknownst to the kids -- is to specifically promote legislation that is the chief legislative priority for Philip Morris. How many kids who are participating in Kick Butts Day on Wednesday do you think realize this?
According to the press release: "This year, health advocates are urging Congress to pass legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco products. Among other things, the FDA could require that tobacco companies disclose the contents of tobacco products and remove harmful ingredients; crack down on tobacco marketing and sales to kids; and stop tobacco companies from misleading the public about the health risks of their products. ... 'It is inexcusable that tobacco products, the number one preventable cause of death in America, are one of the least regulated products sold in America,' said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. 'By granting the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products, Congress can stop the tobacco industry from targeting our children and misleading the public. We hope Kick Butts Day will inspire elected leaders across the nation to support effective measures to protect children and save lives.'"
In other words, the Campaign has orchestrated this entire day of youth advocacy primarily as a lobbying event for the FDA legislation. But kids do not necessarily know that this is the case. Kids are certainly not being told what the legislation is all about. And they are not given information with which they could make their own informed judgment about whether to participate in an event in support of this legislation.
Most of the kids likely think that they are making a general statement about how evil the tobacco companies are, how toxic cigarettes are, and how it makes sense to regulate tobacco products to save lives. Little do they know that they are being exploited to make a very specific statement about a very specific piece of legislation that stringently restricts the authority of the FDA to regulate tobacco products in ways that might actually save lives.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids certainly has the right to support any legislation it wants to, whether the bill is a result of discussions within the public health community or negotiations with Philip Morris. But to misuse kids and get them to do the dirty work of promoting the legislation without informing them of what the debate is all about - or even that there is a debate - is unacceptable.
The rest of the story is that in my opinion, this latest campaign by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is one of the ugliest, most unethical, most deceptive, irresponsible, inappropriate, and sleaziest tactics I've ever seen in my 21 years in tobacco control.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is supposed to be supporting the interests of our nation's young people, not manipulating, exploiting, deceiving, and misusing them.
I hope others will join me in calling for an immediate end to this deceptive, inappropriate, and unethical campaign.