Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Deceives Constituents by Refuting/Obscuring Menthol Exemption; Admits Desire to Protect Menthol Cigarette Sales

In response to a New York Times article which uncovered the story about the secret negotiations between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris that led to the current FDA legislation before Congress, and which revealed the Campaign's sell out in agreeing to exempt menthol from the bill's ban on cigarette flavorings, the Campaign has accused the New York Times of inaccurate reporting and appears to be refuting or at least obscuring the article's primary assertion (which is that the legislation exempts menthol from its ban on cigarette flavorings).

In a communication sent to many of its constituents, the Campaign wrote: "The New York Times today published an article about the pending legislation to grant the FDA authority over tobacco products and how it addresses menthol. The article includes several inaccuracies:

1) The bill does not exempt menthol from FDA regulation."

In the communication, the Campaign also acknowledges that in supporting an exemption for menthol, it was motivated by a desire to keep menthol cigarettes available to millions of addicted smokers: "Currently, menthol cigarettes make up 28 percent of the U.S. cigarette market. As many in the scientific community have pointed out, it is critical to review the science and understand the public health impact before withdrawing from the market a product to which millions are addicted."

The Rest of the Story

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has itself admitted that the major reason why menthol is not included in the bill's prohibition of cigarette flavorings is that banning menthol would interfere with the sale of such cigarettes to millions of users. The Campaign's expressed concern in agreeing to the menthol exemption, then, is that there are millions of smokers who need menthol cigarettes because they are addicted. The Campaign apparently desires to protect the sale of mentholated tobacco products. In fact, the Campaign is taking precisely the tobacco industry's position on this issue: that we should not remove menthol cigarettes because millions of smokers use this product. In other words, the Campaign itself has essentially admitted that it sold out the public's health in order to protect Big Tobacco profits.

This is one occasion on which the Campaign is absolutely correct. It did sell out the public's health in order to make sure that there is no major interference with the ability of Philip Morris to sell its mentholated cigarette brands. Congress is also happy, of course, because this ensures that there will be no meaningful reduction in cigarette sales, and therefore, no reduction in cigarette tax revenues.

It seems quite apparent to me that the Campaign is not being sincere in its defense of the menthol exemption. As despicable as I find the Campaign's actions in support of this bill, I do not for a minute believe that the Campaign truly believes that it is more important to make sure that menthol cigarettes are available to millions of addicted smokers than to get rid of these products to protect the public's health.

Actually, I think that the Campaign was just backed into a corner, and in its haste to defend its sell-out to Big Tobacco, it stuck its foot in its mouth by making an argument which makes it seem like a true protector of the tobacco industry. No - I don't believe the Campaign is that bad. Instead, I think the Campaign is so determined to hide the truth - that it agreed to this deal because it believed that it needed Philip Morris' support in order to get this legislation enacted - that it is willing to say anything to keep the truth from public health and tobacco control advocates.

Why? Because if the truth is revealed, it will become very difficult for the Campaign to hold together its coalition of groups in support of this legislation. Already, the grassroots membership of many of these organizations are growing impatient. Many local advocates personally oppose the legislation but their hands are tied because the national offices of their organizations support the bill. However, if the truth comes out - that the Campaign negotiated this bill with Philip Morris and that the key provisions in the bill, such as the exemption for menthol, have no public health justification but are present only to appease Philip Morris and protect Big Tobacco profits - then there is a risk that advocates will start to break with their national offices' positions, and the coalition will begin to crumble.

This is, I surmise, why the Campaign felt a need to perform damage control in the wake of the New York Times article. Unfortunately, that damage control has inflicted more damage than they ever could have imagined, because it makes it eminently clear that there is no valid justification for the menthol exemption. It is truly a special protection for Big Tobacco, the precise thing that the Campaign says the legislation is trying to end.

To make matters much worse, the Campaign appears to be attempting to refute and/or obscure the Times' assertion that the bill contains an exemption for menthol in its ban on cigarette flavorings. However, by suggesting that the Times is inaccurate, the Campaign is implying that there is no exemption for menthol in the bill. This is false. The bill does specifically exempt menthol from its ban on cigarette flavorings.

The relevant provision is section 907(a)(1), which states: "A cigarette or any of its component parts (including the tobacco, filter, or paper) shall not contain, as a constituent (including a smoke constituent) or an additive, an artificial or natural flavor (other than tobacco or menthol) or an herb or spice, including strawberry, grape, orange, clove, cinnamon, pineapple, vanilla, coconut, licorice, cocoa, chocolate, cherry, or coffee, that is a characterizing flavor of the tobacco product or tobacco smoke."

That sounds to me like a pretty clear exemption of menthol from the bill's ban on cigarette flavorings.

In fact, the New York Times was precisely correct in reporting this information, and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is wrong in refuting the Times' statements and is wrong in accusing the newspaper of inaccurately reporting this information.

It is true that the bill does not completely exempt menthol from FDA regulation, but that is not the point which the article made. By obscuring the issue, the Campaign's statement apparently aims to throw readers off track and take their attention off what is a very clear exemption for menthol from the bill's cigarette flavorings ban. The fact that the FDA could at some point ban menthol in no way can be used to argue that the menthol exemption in section 907(a)(1) does not exist.

It is perfectly appropriate for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other anti-smoking groups to support the FDA legislation based on what they see as its merits. However, it is inappropriate for the Campaign to try to hide from its constituents the truth about the legislation: that it does contain an exemption for menthol and that this exemption serves no public health purpose and is present only to protect Big Tobacco financial interests.

Making disingenuous statements to one's constituents is hardly a respectable way of practicing public health. (And if the Campaign is not being disingenuous, and it truly believes that federal tobacco legislation should aim to protect the sale of tobacco products in order not to disrupt the access of millions of smokers to these products, then I think we have worse problems in tobacco control than dishonesty.)

To be honest, I think that right now the tobacco control movement has a lot more important things to worry about than mobilizing to support this flawed FDA legislation. I think first and foremost, it needs to get its house in order. It needs to think about ways to restore some integrity to the public health practice of tobacco control. It needs to think about ways to bring transparency and honesty to the process of national tobacco control policy formation. It needs to devise and act on ways to achieve inclusion of local advocates, and especially advocates of color, in the policy development process.

After all, the FDA legislation is only going to be alive for another couple of months, when it will be vetoed by President Bush. But the tobacco control movement will be alive for years to come, and it needs to be unified, inclusive, honest, ethical, and beyond reproach in its integrity and character for it to remain both alive and effective.

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