Monday, April 30, 2007

American Medical Association Suggests that Tobacco Companies Should Be Allowed to Market their Deadly Products; But Not Too Much

In response to the release of a Federal Trade Commission report revealing that tobacco companies spent approximately $13 billion on advertising and promotion of cigarettes in 2005 and $14 billion in 2004, the American Medical Association (AMA) issued a statement criticizing the companies for spending so much on marketing: "In 2004 and 2005 alone, the tobacco industry spent an exorbitant $27.7 billion to market their deadly products to the American people. That same money could pay for virtually every smoker in America to receive a full course of nicotine treatment to help them quit."

The AMA's statement is being widely interpreted as a complaint against the volume of cigarette advertising. For example, HealthDay summarized the story as follows: "Despite a two-year decline in the amount of money tobacco makers spend on marketing and advertising, the American Medical Association says too much is still spent on promoting cigarettes and other forms of smoking."

The Rest of the Story

It certainly sounds like what the AMA is bemoaning and criticizing is the amount of money that the cigarette companies spend on marketing their products. The AMA is using the new FTC report to argue that Congress should heed Philip Morris' desire for legislators to pass the company-supported FDA tobacco legislation. In other words, the amount of money tobacco companies spend on marketing is too high. That money could and should be put to better use - paying for pharmaceutical smoking cessation treatment for every smoker. That's why we must do something about it.

There are a number of things that I find wrong with the way the AMA is framing this issue.

First, it is not the amount of money that is being spent on cigarette marketing that makes it problematic or inappropriate. Cigarettes are a legal product and therefore there is no particular limit on the amount of money that the tobacco companies should be allowed to spend marketing the product. The tobacco companies are and should be free to determine their marketing budgets. Setting a limit on the advertising amount would almost certainly be unconstitutional.

If the AMA is going to criticize the tobacco companies for spending so much money on marketing, then how can the AMA fail to call on the companies to cease their marketing altogether? It seems quite an inconsistent position to me to state that the companies spend too much on cigarette marketing. If the cigarette companies had cut their advertising and promotional expenditures from $15 billion in 2003 to $7 billion in 2005, would that have led the AMA to praise the companies? How could the AMA possibly praise a company for spending $7 billion a year to market a deadly product? There appears to be a huge inconsistency in the AMA's position.

Second, is the AMA seriously suggesting that it is the tobacco companies' responsibility to cease their marketing of their products and spend the same amount of money instead on trying to encourage people not to use their products? If you're going to criticize the companies for trying to sell their legal products and not trying to get every customer to stop using the product, then it seems to me that you ought to simply be calling for the prohibition of these products in the first place. Yet the AMA is doing the exact opposite: supporting a bill that precludes FDA from ever banning the sale of any class of tobacco product. Once again, the AMA's position is entirely inconsistent.

Third, it seems to me that the AMA's criticism is misplaced. It is not the amount of advertising and promotion that is irresponsible. After all, this is a legal product and how can you criticize a company merely for advertising a legal product? What is irresponsible is two things: (1) the use of misleading or deceptive advertising; and (2) the marketing of tobacco products to youths. By focusing on the amount of the advertising and criticizing the tobacco companies for spending too much money, the AMA is distracting attention away from the aspects of the marketing that really determine the level of responsibility of the companies: whether the advertising is truthful or deceptive and whether it is directed at youths versus adults.

Sometimes I get the feeling that anti-smoking groups, especially those supporting the proposed FDA legislation, are looking for any excuse to criticize the tobacco companies, whether or not the companies ought to be criticized for that reason or not. I get the idea that those groups supporting the FDA legislation are looking for any opportunity to show that this particular event or finding demonstrates that we need FDA legislation, regardless of whether that event or finding actually demonstrates the need for the FDA legislation or not.

I think what is happening is that our arguments are getting weaker and weaker, less and less consistent, as our zeal to criticize the companies and promote the FDA legislation spirals out of control. As a result, we are losing sight of the appropriate science and policy base that should underlie tobacco control. We are losing the footing of our movement, as we transfer our foundations from cement to ever-shifting and sinking quicksand.

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