Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Senator Kennedy and Health Groups Do Huge Favor for Philip Morris; FDA Bill Protects Tobacco Company Profits at the Expense of the Public's Health

Philip Morris owes a debt of gratitude to Senator Kennedy and the major health groups (including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, and American Medical Association) for performing a huge favor.

Unbenownst to any of us, behind the scenes, Senator Kennedy inserted language into the proposed FDA legislation that exempts clove from the list of banned flavorings in cigarettes. The original bill banned the use of clove as a primary flavoring in cigarettes. However, the bill that the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committe will see tomorrow exempts clove from the ban that affects all other flavorings (other than menthol, which was already exempted).

This comes at a perfect time for Philip Morris, which according to a New York Times article, "recently introduced a clove-flavored version of its Marlboro brand in Indonesia. The company spent $5 billion in 2005 to buy a controlling stake in Sampoerna of Indonesia, a large maker of clove cigarettes."

While Senator Kennedy was the one who apparently inserted this Philip Morris protection clause into the legislation, it appears that the health groups are OK with the change - none of them has called for the removal of this protection clause and all continue to support the bill.

According to the article, "The American Lung Association and other health advocates said they were disappointed by the change in the bill but still supported it. 'We would prefer that the bill continue to prohibit clove-flavored cigarettes,' said Paul G. Billings, a spokesman for the American Lung Association. 'But Senator Kennedy is trying to craft a path that can move the legislation through to final passage.'”

The Rest of the Story

Philip Morris truly has friends at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the other major health groups. What a dent it could have made in the company's business if it were prevented from pushing its clove-flavored Marlboro in the United States, as it is doing now in Indonesia. But the health groups made sure that this wasn't going to be a problem for the nation's leading cigarette company.

What a wonderful favor! Selling out the public's health for the sake of Big Tobacco profits.

Clearly, the health groups perceive that Philip Morris' support is necessary for the bill to have a chance. And clearly, all of their propaganda about ending special protections for Big Tobacco is little more than rhetoric in light of this revelation about clove cigarettes.

Most importantly, it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if Philip Morris supports the bill, it cannot possibly be good for the public's health. When has Philip Morris ever previously supported legislation that would have hurt its own profits in order to substantially reduce cigarette consumption?

Why are the health groups deluding themselves into believing that somehow, they have tricked Philip Morris this time? As Dr. Richard Hurt stated astutely today in the New York Times: "This industry doesn’t miss a trick, and anything that Philip Morris wants can’t be good."

Also troubling are the racial aspects of the exemptions in the proposed legislation. The only two flavors which are exempt from the bill's ban on flavorings are menthol and clove - flavors which are predominantly used to entice people belonging to racial/ethnic minority groups. Kreteks are very popular in Indonesia, where 60% of men smoke them. Menthol cigarettes are smoked predominantly by African-Americans (75% of African-American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes compared to just 25% of white smokers).

What the FDA bill is basically saying is that it is acceptable to use flavorings to addict African-Americans or youths belonging to other minority groups, but it is not acceptable to do the same thing to our white youths.

This represents racial discrimination in health protection and it is not something that health groups should be supporting, for that reason alone.

The implications are very disturbing to me because they represent an institutionalized form of racial discrimination in health protection -- in other words, a form of racial discrimination that is actually written into the law. There is enough racial discrimination that occurs through institutional behavior. It is inexcusable to me to actually write racial discrimination in health protection into the law.

I want to emphasize that there is no scientific or public health rationale for exempting menthol and cloves. So it is not that this is merely an example of racial discrimination that creeps into the legislation in a completely unanticipated, unnoticed, and/or unavoidable way. It represents an intentional decision to treat differently flavorings that are traditionally targeted at different racial/ethnic groups. And to do this solely to protect potential profits of the nation's leading cigarette company.

With enemies like the health groups, it doesn't appear that Philip Morris needs friends. The health groups are doing a fine job of doing Philip Morris' bidding for it.

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