Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Senator Admits FDA Legislation Supporters Accepted Compromise to Appease Philip Morris; Supporters Sold Out Health of African Americans to Big Tobacco

Today, an individual with intimate knowledge of the process that led to the FDA tobacco legislation that is currently before Congress has admitted, for the first time, that the legislation represents the results of a negotiation between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Philip Morris and that a major compromise in the bill - the exemption for menthol (all other flavorings were banned) - was inserted to appease Philip Morris and protect its profits.

According to an article in the New York Times: "Some public health experts are questioning why menthol, the most widely used cigarette flavoring and the most popular cigarette choice of African-American smokers, is receiving special protection as Congress tries to regulate tobacco for the first time. ... The reason menthol is seen as politically off limits, despite those concerns, is that mentholated brands are so crucial to the American cigarette industry." ...

"That is why one former public health official says the legislation’s menthol exemption is a “cave-in to the industry,” an opinion shared by some other public health advocates. “I think we can say definitively that menthol induces smoking in the African-American community and subsequently serves as a direct link to African-American death and disease,” said the former official, Robert G. Robinson, who retired two years ago as an associate director in the office of smoking and health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

"The current lead scientist on tobacco related issues for the C.D.C, Terry F. Pechacek, said the legislation’s exemption for menthol was an issue being discussed in the scientific community. "I would just say this is an area of clear scientific interest and it merits very careful attention." ...

"The legislation is largely a result of negotiations during sessions in 2003 and 2004 between lawmakers, antismoking groups and Philip Morris — the only major American cigarette company that supports the effort to regulate the industry. “My recollection is that we were able to eliminate the use of flavored cigarettes, strawberry, mocha, and all this stuff that is clearly targeted at young kids and to start them smoking tobacco,” Mike DeWine, the former Ohio senator who helped arrange a series of negotiations between Philip Morris and an influential antismoking group, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a recent telephone interview. “Where the compromise was made as I recall was on menthol,” Mr. DeWine said."

The article confirms what the Rest of the Story has been reporting for several years: that the FDA legislation before Congress is the result of negotiations between anti-tobacco advocates and the leading tobacco company and that the loopholes in the bill are compromises made to appease tobacco industry financial interests.

The Rest of the Story

Shame on the tobacco control groups for selling out the health of African Americans to appease Philip Morris and protect the financial interests of Big Tobacco.

For that reason alone, public health groups should withdraw their support for this legislation, Congress should reject the legislation, and President Bush should veto the bill if it ends up crossing his desk.

Public health practitioners have no business selling out the health of racial/ethnic minority groups in our nation solely to appease Big Tobacco and to protect the profits of the nation's cigarette companies.

Former CDC official and a friend and colleague of mine - Dr. Robert G. Robinson - was right on the mark when he called the FDA tobacco legislation a "cave-in" to the tobacco industry.

What is particularly sad is that the anti-smoking groups will not admit that they caved in to Big Tobacco. Instead, they insist that they are standing up strongly against Big Tobacco. But nothing could be further from the truth, as Dr. Robinson correctly notes.

The rest of the story is that public health and anti-smoking groups caved in to Big Tobacco, and the FDA legislation protects the profits of the nation's largest cigarette company at the expense of the protection of the public's health, especially the protection of the health of African Americans.

If the anti-smoking groups would merely admit that the legislation represents a compromise to appease the interests of Big Tobacco, I might be able to settle for that. But instead, they are hiding the truth from their constituents and the public. This is unethical, because transparency is one of the basic ethical principles of conduct for public health organizations.

Sometimes I wish that I were a leader in a national anti-smoking group, because the job sounds really easy. You get to tell the public that you are fighting Big Tobacco, but when push comes to shove, you actually can take the easy way out. Tell the public that you are getting rid of all flavorings from cigarettes. But when the tough moment comes at the negotiation table, cave in to Philip Morris. Why would you want to actually set a policy that would do something substantial to protect the public's health? It's much easier to get rid of the chocolate and strawberry - flavorings that aren't even being used. You can be all talk, and no walk. You can be all fluff, and no substance.

Things are different here in the tobacco control trenches. We (grassroots advocates) are the ones who really put up the fight. We do things the hard way. We don't take the politically expedient path. And that's why what we do actually makes a difference.

One final note. It is disturbing to me that the CDC spokesperson was unwilling to take a position. Clearly, he was trying to walk a tightrope and stay on the fence, so as not to alienate the nation's major anti-smoking groups. But his responsibility I believe as a public health practitioner was to tell the truth: that from a public health perspective, menthol should be eliminated if we are going to eliminate all other flavorings. There is no public health justification for the exemption of menthol. His unwillingness to take a stand is disappointing.

At the end of the day, it is sad to me that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Medical Association, and other major national anti-smoking groups have caved in to Big Tobacco, selling out the health of African Americans in order to protect cigarette company profits.

I guess poetic justice will be served when George W. is the one to send them the wake-up call. With his veto, he will ironically be the one who is standing up to protect the public's health. It may be the only time in his presidency, but it will be sweet, and the African American community deserves nothing less.

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