Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tobacco-Free Kids' Defense of Menthol Exemption Shows Why FDA Legislation is Worthless; Shows How Campaign is Hiding Negotiation with Philip Morris

In an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids defends the menthol exemption in the FDA tobacco legislation, arguing that this exemption is necessary to protect the public's health by allowing the 10 million people in the U.S. who smoke menthol cigarettes to have continued access to these deadly products.

Sounding more like a tobacco company concerned over its profits than a public health group, the Campaign argued that it is important to protect smokers' access to the products they use, even though removing such products would likely lead to a reduction in smoking by stimulating a wave of smoking cessation. The Campaign argued against such a strong public health measure, warning that removing products which people actually use could lead to the development of a black market or other unspecified behaviors.

According to the article: "'No one in the public health community is aware the treatment of menthol was for any other reason than a concern for public health,' said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a major anti-smoking group supporting the legislation. The bill bans candy flavorings because they are new to the market and have potential for widespread appeal among children, he said. 'Unlike the candy flavors, there's more than 10 million people in the United States who smoke menthol cigarettes,' Myers said. 'If you immediately withdrew a product so many people use and are addicted to, you can't say for certain what the reaction would be,' Myers said. It might cause people to quit smoking, he said, but it might also lead to illegal trafficking in menthol cigarettes or other behavioral changes. 'Would these smokers look to get their fix from other nonmentholated cigarettes or would they start to use another substance?" asks an issue paper circulated by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The document states the organization's position that menthol should not be immediately banned because it 'would negatively impact the public's health.'"

According to the article, other public health advocates were not buying the Campaign's explanation:

"'That's "poppycock," said Sullivan, whose outspoken criticism in 1990 contributed to R.J. Reynolds scrapping a plan for a new cigarette called Uptown specifically targeted at black consumers. At the time he was serving as health secretary for then-President George H.W. Bush. 'That's the kind of statement I would expect to be issued by a tobacco company, not a health-advocacy group working to ban flavorings from cigarettes,' Sullivan said. Sullivan and some other African-American health leaders worry the controversy over menthol could derail what they otherwise believe is landmark public health legislation. But they said they are speaking out because the lax approach to menthol fails to fairly protect the health of black Americans. 'I'd much rather have a bill that's the right bill than a flawed bill,' Sullivan said."

The Rest of the Story

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' defense of the menthol exemption reveals the complete folly of the FDA legislation. The Campaign, which is boasting about how the legislation will protect children by getting rid of cigarette flavorings and saving "countless lives," was now forced to admit that the flavorings ban - which affects additives like cherry, chocolate, and strawberry - is in the bill because nobody smokes those cigarettes. The flavorings which actually do induce and support smoking are not included in the bill, according to the Campaign, because people actually smoke those products.

We certainly wouldn't want to do anything that might actually reduce cigarette consumption. Especially when we have negotiated a bill with Philip Morris, whose profits would fall if cigarette use actually declined.

So instead, the Campaign is throwing its weight behind a bill which does nothing substantive, but which has a lot of flowery "flavorings" around the edges.

For every major action that the FDA could potentially take that would actually make a real dent in smoking, Philip Morris and its "friends" at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids have made sure that there is a loophole or exemption present that would mitigate the effect of the regulations on tobacco use.

The bill bans a host of flavorings which the Campaign now admits nobody uses anyway, but the flavoring which companies actually rely upon to maintain their cigarette sales is exempt.

The bill allows the FDA to regulate the sale of cigarettes, but not at any particular type of retail outlet, such as a pharmacy, convenience store, or youth community center.

The bill allows the FDA to regulate the sale of cigarettes to minors, but FDA cannot raise the legal age of cigarette purchase.

The bill allows the FDA to regulate the nicotine levels in cigarettes, but not to get rid of the nicotine altogether.

The bill allows the FDA to regulate cigarette advertising, but no regulations that would be consistent with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment would put any kind of a dent in youth smoking.

In other words, the bill is full of marginal changes that allow the Campaign to engage in its propaganda stating how many lives the legislation will save. But if you actually take a look at any given area of potential regulation, you'll find out that the loopholes inserted to protect Philip Morris result in a bill that will do nothing to actually reduce smoking, but a whole lot to institutionalize cigarette consumption and protect existing cigarette market shares.

This is what happens when you sit down to negotiate legislation like this with Big Tobacco. You end up with an approach that says: we'll get rid of all the flavorings that Big Tobacco is not using anyway, and we'll exempt flavorings that companies are actually using.

The insanity of this approach cannot be over-emphasized: flavorings are a problem because they support smoking, so let's get rid of all the flavorings in cigarettes that no one smokes, but when we have an identified flavored product smoked by literally millions of people - where we could actually reduce smoking - let's not touch it lest we actually succeed in reducing smoking.

In fact, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' rationale for the menthol exemption is so absurd that it leads me to suspect that they actually are just making it up at the last minute to avoid having to admit that they have agreed to compromises in the legislation to appease Philip Morris.

Interestingly, this is the first we've heard from the Campaign on the need to keep flavorings on the market lest cigarettes which people actually smoke be removed from the market. It appears to be an eleventh hour excuse, made only in the face of a New York Times investigation into whether the Campaign agreed to this compromise to appease Philip Morris.

Apparently, the Campaign felt that such an admission would be very damning. What the Campaign failed to realize, I believe, is that by going to such a far-fetched excuse to avoid that admission, the Campaign has both revealed the absurdity of the legislation it is supporting and tipped us off that the suspicion of a tainted compromise is the truth after all.

Like Dr. Sullivan, I and every other tobacco control advocate with whom I have spoken feel that the Campaign's justification for the menthol exemption is poppycock. It sounds like something you would hear out of the mouths of Big Tobacco, not from a leading anti-smoking group.

If I actually believed that the Campaign truly believes what it is saying, I would argue here that the Campaign is not actually interested in protecting the public's health. I would argue that the Campaign is more interested in protecting tobacco sales than in actually supporting an aggressive action that might well reduce smoking.

Luckily, I don't believe, for a minute, that the Campaign truly believes in its poppycock explanation that we need to protect the sale of cigarettes to addicted smokers. I think that the Campaign was backed into a corner and concocted this flimsy explanation out of pure desperation.

However, the damning truth that the Campaign was apparently trying to avoid is now becoming clearer to the nation day by day: the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids struck a deal with Philip Morris after negotiating the FDA legislation with the nation's largest cigarette company and in forging that deal, the Campaign compromised the protection of the public's health for the special protection of tobacco company financial interests.

The truth is ugly, but perhaps not as ugly as the appearance that the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is actually working on the side of the tobacco companies.

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