If the debate over the FDA tobacco legislation during the 110th Congress has taught us anything, it is that for both Congressional anti-tobacco "leaders" and the leading national anti-smoking organizations, money and politics are more important than protecting the public's health. While this may not be a revelation as it applies to political leaders and is perhaps to be expected, it is not expected, nor excusable, among public health leaders.
An article published in Saturday's New York Times reveals that Congressional leaders are unwilling to allow the menthol exemption in the FDA tobacco legislation to be removed because the states and federal government are dependent upon tobacco tax revenues and banning menthol flavoring in cigarettes could seriously threaten cigarette sales. The legislation, while banning every other cigarette flavoring, exempts menthol.
The leading anti-smoking groups -- including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, and American Medical Association -- have all opposed the removal of the menthol exemption, citing a need to make sure that menthol cigarettes remain available to the millions of smokers who use these products. Essentially, then, these groups are arguing that such an amendment would threaten tobacco sales.
In other words, the leading anti-smoking groups support the menthol exemption specifically because they are afraid that it might just work! The danger of the amendment to remove this provision, they argue, is that it might actually strengthen the bill and give it real teeth. It might just succeed in substantially reducing cigarette use.
But because a reduction in cigarette use translates into a reduction in cigarette company profits -- including those of Philip Morris, a key ally of the anti-smoking groups -- amending the legislation so that it might actually achieve its stated purpose is unacceptable to the anti-smoking groups because it would threaten breaking up the anti-smoking group/Philip Morris alliance.
The reason behind the opposition of Congressional anti-smoking "leaders" to the removal of the menthol exemption is also based on the desire to maintain cigarette sales. In this case, however, the biggest threat is to the heavily relied upon stream of cigarette tax revenues that the federal and state governments are dependent upon to fund everything from roads and bridges to health care for the poor.
As Stepanie Saul writes in the New York Times: "The decision to exempt menthol from the flavoring ban may appear illogical until you dissect the economics of cigarettes and their impact on government. A growing reliance by the states and federal government on cigarette taxes — as well as a popular proposal to increase federal taxes by 61 cents to an even $1 per pack to finance the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, S-chip — provide a sort of insurance policy for the continued survival of menthol cigarettes. The National Conference of State Legislatures reported last month that states were facing combined budget deficits of more than $40 billion in 2009. Raising cigarette taxes is one way some states are trying to make up the shortfall. In 2007, states collected more than $19 billion in cigarette taxes, and Maryland, which doubled its tax to $2 in January was one of 10 states that voted last year to increase those collections. More states are considering cigarette tax increases this year. The federal government, meantime, collects nearly $7 billion annually in cigarette excise taxes and would have raised those taxes, effective this year, but for the presidential veto of the S-chip legislation, which House Democrats have said is near the top of their agenda for next year."
"But taxes are not the only government revenue from cigarettes. Settlements in the late 1990s to end state lawsuits against tobacco companies mean that the cigarette industry is paying states nearly $250 billion over 25 years. Under the agreement, those payments to states will continue flowing even beyond 25 years as long as the tobacco industry is healthy. But the payments would phase out as cigarette company profits decline and would ultimately disappear if people stop smoking. So the government has become a financial stakeholder in smoking, some would argue, even as public health officials warn people about its deadly consequences. Smoking declines as cigarette taxes increase, but a core group of smokers hang on to the habit. The reliance of government coffers on the taxes smokers pay, and on the tobacco settlement money, essentially provides a financial cushion for state governments and could be viewed as a government guarantee for the survival of the tobacco industry. Would politicians shut down an industry that supplies so much money?"
"Now we come to menthol cigarettes, which make up 28 percent of the market. Unless menthol smokers switched to other types of cigarettes, a menthol ban would cut nearly a third of the tax revenues for states and federal governments. ... With many states currently broke, menthol provides a revenue stream few would want to give up."
The Rest of the Story
You know you are dealing with an anti-smoking movement which has largely lost its integrity when the leading anti-smoking groups are opposing changes to federal tobacco legislation because they fear those changes may actually lead to substantial reductions in smoking and to saving countless lives.
You know you are dealing with a movement overcome by hypocrisy when you hear those same anti-smoking groups boasting about how the legislation is critically needed because it would reduce tobacco use and save countless lives.
It truly saddens me to see the tobacco control movement go down the tubes like this. I think we desperately need to restore integrity to the movement, but it's hard to imagine overcoming an actual desire to protect tobacco industry sales and the formation of an alliance between the leading national anti-smoking groups and Big Tobacco!
My conclusion from this story is that the tobacco industry is absolutely brilliant. First, they forged an alliance with the states and federal government by enticing the Attorneys General into signing the Master Settlement Agreement. They did this by dangling billions of dollars and the opportunity for political gain in front of them.
Then, Philip Morris pulled of the unthinkable. They forged an alliance with numerous anti-smoking groups by enticing them into joining them in supporting very weak federal tobacco legislation. They did this by dangling the opportunity for a legislative victory - no matter how meaningless - in front of these groups. Somehow, Philip Morris correctly figured that the groups were more interested in being able to say that they had gotten something accomplished than in actually achieving real protection of the public's health.
The tobacco industry is in a very solid position because of the alliances it has successfully forged with the federal and state governments and the national leadership groups of anti-smoking movement. It succeeded in forging these alliances because it correctly calculated that the leading anti-smoking groups and leading politicians had one thing in common: they were more interested in money and political and organizational prestige than in actually standing up for the principles they publicly espoused.
The tobacco companies were right.
While I understand and am not surprised by the industry's calculation with respect to leading politicians in Congress, I have to applaud them for their insight into the psyche of the national leaders of the anti-smoking movement. I would never have guessed that these groups lacked the integrity to stand up for their espoused principles and that they would cave in so easily.
I guess that's why I am a tobacco policy blogger and not a tobacco company executive.