Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Cave In to Big Tobacco on Menthol Blasted From Left and Right

Anti-smoking groups are being blasted, from both the left and the right, for their cave in to Big Tobacco in deciding to exempt menthol from the flavorings that are banned by bills being considered by Congress which would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limited regulatory authority over tobacco products.

An editorial in the Los Angeles Times argues that anti-smoking groups are being dishonest by claiming that the legislation protects our children from death and disease, when those anti-smoking groups are supporting legislation which actually largely exempts African American children from the health protections. It argues, further, that anti-smoking groups are acting in the interest of Philip Morris, not the public's health.

According to the editorial, the legislation bans a host of flavorings, but "stops short of listing the flavoring that actually entices the most smokers: menthol. Mentholated brands, it seems, are simply too important to the industry's bottom line. But let's be clear: It's not the brands that are important, it's the buyers -- African Americans. ... Congress is supposed to be acting in the public's interest, not the tobacco industry's, and one of the alleged goals of the legislation is to reduce smoking's appeal to young people. New smokers often find the taste of tobacco unpleasant or harsh, and tobacco companies have helped ease them into the habit with flavored cigarettes. ... What we're asking for is honesty: The next time the anti-smoking lobby, Philip Morris and certain legislators say this legislation is needed to protect our children, they should have the decency to put the word 'our' in quotations."

Even conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has blasted the anti-smoking groups for their hypocrisy. He argues that these groups are not sincere in all their talk about saving lives and protecting children. If they were really sincere, then why the exemption for menthol when all other flavorings are banned?

Rush argues, referring to the menthol exemption: "It still proves that those in government who say they're out to save lives are lying to us. They're not about saving lives. They're about raising taxes. It's about increasing government revenue. It's about keeping people addicted to these things."

The Rest of the Story

Although they represent two extremes on the political spectrum, both the Los Angeles Times and Rush Limbaugh have it exactly right when they argue that anti-smoking groups are being insincere and dishonest in parading about with all their propaganda about saving lives and protecting children through the FDA legislation, when the truth is that in a secret back-room deal, these groups have sold out the health of America's children (especially African-Americans) in order to protect the financial status of Big Tobacco and ensure that cigarettes will continue to be sold at high rates.

You can be on the right, you can be on the left, or you can be anywhere in the middle and it's not hard to see through this charade. Anti-smoking groups (joined by their Congressional "friends") are masquerading around as world saviours, arguing that their interest is in saving "millions" of lives. Yet, the legislation is actually the result of secret negotiations with Philip Morris, in which the anti-smoking groups caved in to protect tobacco interests.

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. In other words, it is quite true that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has sold 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 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 is important to note that neither I nor Rush Limbaugh (I never thought we would ever both appear in the same sentence) are arguing that menthol cigarettes should necessarily be prohibited. The argument is more about the hypocrisy and insincerity of the anti-smoking groups then it is about our ideal visions for federal tobacco policy.

What I find unacceptable is not the fact that as a matter of policy, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other anti-smoking groups decided not to ban menthol. What is unacceptable is that the Campaign is out there touting this legislation as protecting the public's health, saving our children, saving millions of lives, and ending special protections for Big Tobacco, when the truth is that the bill contains incredible special protections for the industry that are present merely to protect cigarette company profits. And these protections are there because the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids negotiated this legislation with Philip Morris.

I don't necessarily have a problem with the idea of crafting legislation to give the FDA regulatory authority over cigarettes. However, if we are going to craft such a bill, it should be done by public health professionals, not by the nation's leading tobacco company. We should not craft the bill by asking Philip Morris what it would like and not like in the legislation. That is simply unacceptable and it is a disservice to the American people.

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