Wednesday, September 03, 2008

IN MY VIEW: How Money Has Destroyed the Tobacco Control Movement

Today, I give my readers a glimpse into some of my commentary on the state of the tobacco control movement, which I communicated with my colleagues in tobacco control, prior to The Rest of the Story, which I started in March 2005. I am sharing two email communications that I sent to a national tobacco control list-serve back in 2004.

The first (September 27, 2004) deals with the hypocrisy of the American Legacy Foundation in refusing to give grants to any university that takes tobacco money while at the same time begging the industry to provide funding for Legacy's "truth" campaign.

The second (October 6, 2004) deals with the lack of honesty and other unethical practices of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and what I saw then as an urgent need to restore integrity to the tobacco control movement.

Sent to National Tobacco Control List-Serve
September 27, 2004

Subject: American Legacy Foundation Hypocrisy Continues: Now They Aim to Join TFK in Bed with Philip Morris

According to a press release put out by the American Legacy Foundation today and a quote from Attorney General Sorrell, who is a Legacy Foundation Board member, the American Legacy Foundation is apparently still seeking tobacco industry funding to continue its "truth" campaign:

"The industry publicly claims to support youth tobacco prevention programs," Sorrell said. "Well, here's its opportunity to step up by continuing to fund truth(R). Forget about the
MSA sunset provision."

In other words, the American Legacy Foundation is asking the tobacco companies for voluntary donations to support an anti-smoking campaign. This is exactly the type of thing that tobacco control practitioners have vociferously opposed for years. In fact, it's exactly what the Foundation itself, in its policies regarding grants to institutions, opposes. The Foundation requires schools of public health that receive Legacy funding to promise never to accept tobacco industry funding, and they are not eligible for such funding if the school currently takes tobacco money.

So let me get this straight: It's terribly wrong for another organization to take tobacco money to conduct what may be important research and tobacco control activities, but it's OK for the American Legacy Foundation to take tobacco money for its own purposes. If that's not the example given in the dictionary under the definition of "hypocrisy," it should be.

I don't know where our ethics, principle, and integrity have gone in tobacco control. As I sit here today, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is working alongside Philip Morris to promote legislation that would protect the company's market share and profits and protect it from liability and the American Legacy Foundation is doing everything it can to get Philip Morris to work alongside it - so that together, they can try to keep kids from smoking and ensure that smoking remains an adult activity.

I don't know who I'm fighting anymore. It used to be that we were fighting the tobacco companies, led by Philip Morris. Now we have to fight several major health organizations that are teaming up with Philip Morris: most notably, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and its jealous counterpart - the American Legacy Foundation - which apparently is only too eager to join hands with Philip Morris as well. It's becoming a contest to see who can get in bed with Philip Morris the quickest. I guess money can make even the ugliest entity look attractive.

I am truly discouraged by all of this - and I really believe that the tobacco control movement as we know it is coming to and end.

What is left is a movement run by a few organizations that are positioning themselves for their own financial gain at the expense of the grassroots movement that made tobacco control as successful as it was, and that have completely lost sight of the most basic principles of public health, ethical standards, and integrity, in order to achieve their narrow, short-sighted, and devastating (for public health) aims.

Sent to National Tobacco Control List-Serve
October 6, 2004

Subject: Battle for Integrity in Tobacco Control Begins

As one battle ends - the battle to defeat the Philip Morris/Tobacco-Free Kids FDA deal - a new battle begins today: the battle to restore integrity and ethics to the tobacco control movement. In some ways, I view this as even more important than the defeat of the FDA legislation.

We cannot succeed if we are led by an organization whose tactics are unethical, which cannot answer a straightforward question about how a policy was developed, which has deceived the entire public health and tobacco control communities about its role in negotiating a critical public health policy, which has misled hundreds of public health organizations into signing onto what turns out to be a deal with Philip Morris, which misled tobacco farmers and used them as pawns in a political game to get its pet legislation passed, and which has distorted the facts about who was supporting or opposing the bill in a deliberate attempt to deceive its tobacco control constituents into supporting a policy that would have ultimately ended up being devastating to the public's health.

I'm not willing to stand for these tactics in tobacco control, and certainly not when these are the tactics that were used (luckily unsuccessfully) by what is perceived to be the leading tobacco control organization in the country.

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids threw everything out in its unsuccessful and ill-fated attempt to pursue FDA regulation - ethics, basic standards of public health practice, forthrightness, integrity, and trust. Now it is time to do one of two things: either admit its breaches of ethical conduct and apologize or step out of the way and make room for some real leadership in tobacco control.

The damage done by the Campaign was severe, but it is possible that we can overcome it. But there is no room for the Campaign's tactics in this movement, which is based on a battle for the truth. Today begins the battle to reform the way our movement is being led. I invite others to join me in what I perceive is going to be a critical fight for the survival of the tobacco control movement as a true social, grassroots movement that is based on ethical public health principles, honesty, integrity, and commitment to the truth.

The Rest of the Story

The rest of the story is that I have not been joined by more than a few others in the fight to restore ethical principles - including honesty - to the tobacco control movement. On the contrary, I was almost immediately expelled from the national tobacco control list-serve for having the audacity to share these dissenting and critical views and the movement - including the involved organizations - refused to listen to or address these ethical problems. In fact, they have not only continued to this day but they have actually escalated substantially.

The response of these organizations has been either to ignore the criticism or even worse, to attack me personally and try to censor or discredit me (not my opinions). There has been no substantive response to these criticisms.

There are some interesting revelations from going back into the past and retrieving these old commentaries. First, this demonstrates that I went to great lengths to communicate my concerns "privately" to the relevant organizations, from within the movement, for a long time prior to writing publicly (on my blog) about these issues. Starting this blog was only a response to many years of talking to deaf ears. Turning to the public to expose the unethical tactics of the tobacco control movement was only a last resort which followed years of banging my head against the wall trying to reform the movement from within.

Second, going back in time has helped me realize how little these organizations have changed, how little they care about these criticisms, and how hopeless it is to expect meaningful change to occur. My posts about the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids from four years ago could just as well serve as current commentaries about national tobacco control policy promotion. Nothing has changed. No lessons have been learned. The tobacco control community has largely remained silent and there has been no general call for reform.

In fact, I think the tobacco control movement has in fact begun to embrace the use of these unethical principles. To be sure, lying to and misleading the public has now become entrenched as an accepted tobacco control practice. Despite my warnings and my urging the movement to preciously guard our commitment to the truth, the situation has deteriorated further and misleading the public is now an accepted tactic in the tobacco control playbook.

In summary, I have come to the conclusion that the grassroots tobacco control movement has largely been destroyed. I warned my colleagues about this during the early stages of its destruction - when it was not too late to prevent further damage. But now I believe it is too late. The grassroots tobacco control movement has been coopted by a few large, national organizations which command everyone else and dictate the agenda because they have huge amounts of funding. Other organizations are dependent upon these few groups for funding, so they refuse to criticize or allow anyone within the movement to dissent.

Back when the tobacco control movement was largely unfunded and was run by committed local volunteers, I lamented that there was not more money available for tobacco control programs. Well my wish came true when the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation stepped up to the plate and threw in millions of dollars to establish the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the Attorneys General were enticed into signing the Master Settlement Agreement which brought in millions of dollars to the American Legacy Foundation.

Well it turns out that this was actually the worst thing that could have ever happened to the tobacco control movement. Money corrupts and that's exactly what happened to the movement. It was all about money and prestige and basic principles were forgotten. The grassroots social movement that tobacco control once was has been destroyed.

I am no longer going to deceive myself into thinking that I can change the movement and restore its integrity. I am going to have to be content with documenting the downfall of the movement and hoping that my chronicling of this story will do a service to the public by helping social movements in the future to avoid this fate.

But restoring integrity to this movement: it ain't gonna happen.

I'm now going to stop banging my head against the wall. My head - and the wall - are very grateful.

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