This Wednesday was Kick Butts Day 2009, a day on which the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids tries to trick kids into supporting the Philip Morris-negotiated FDA tobacco legislation without telling those kids that the bill before Congress prohibits the FDA from taking meaningful action to protect the public from tobacco products and that the legislation is supported by, and was crafted in part by the nation's leading tobacco company.
In my opinion, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is unethically tricking kids into supporting this legislation because it is not giving them the truth about the legislation. Under the guise of a day to fight Big Tobacco, the Campaign is trying to get kids to support legislation which would actually provide unprecedented special protection to Big Tobacco. Nowhere does the Campaign reveal to the nation's youths that the legislation ties FDA's hands and limits its regulatory authority in a number of important ways -- regulatory limits which are not present for any of the other drugs or products regulated by the Agency. And nowhere does the Campaign inform youths it is recruiting to lobby for this legislation that this is a Philip Morris supported bill, one which contains numerous loopholes inserted specifically to appease the financial interests of the nation's largest cigarette maker.
Consider the following two "tricks" that the Campaign is playing on our kids:
1. Getting the kids to support the FDA legislation without explicitly telling the kids that they will be supporting a specific bill.
One activity set out by the Campaign for Kick Butts Day is entitled "Contact Members of Congress." For this activity, youths are instructed: "Let your members of Congress know that you think the tobacco companies should tell the public what exactly is in their deadly products. You can take action!"
This is ostensibly a trick. By writing Congress and telling lawmakers that you think the tobacco companies should tell the public what exactly is in their deadly products, you are unknowingly expressing support for HR1256, the proposed FDA tobacco legislation. Why? Because that is the legislation currently before Congress which requires tobacco companies to disclose the ingredients in their products. Any policymaker reading a letter from a youth which demands that Congress require the companies to disclose their ingredients is certainly going to read that as supporting the legislation before Congress which would do exactly that.
However, the activity sheet does not inform youths that there is a bill pending in Congress that would require disclosure of ingredients and that their support for disclosure is going to be read as an endorsement of the entire piece of legislation. And furthermore, youths are not informed about what else is in that legislation, including the numerous limits of the FDA's ability to effectively intervene to protect the public's health.
Youths are also told to write letters to Congress urging lawmakers to do something about tobacco companies targeting youths. Again, this is ostensibly a trick to get youths to unknowingly support the FDA legislation, which is clearly what "do something about it" means in this case. With a House vote on the FDA legislation due up next week, what else could "doing something" about it possibly mean?
This is despicable and unethical behavior, because the Campaign is not informing these youths that there is a bill up before Congress and that their letters will be construed as expressing support for that specific piece of legislation. There is an ethical duty here to inform the youths about this piece of legislation and what it would (and would not) do.
In all seriousness, this is the sleaziest maneuver from a tobacco control organization that I have ever witnessed during my 23 years in the tobacco control movement.
To take advantage of kids like this is truly unfortunate.
2. Getting the kids to demand FDA regulation of tobacco products on the basis that they contain arsenic and other toxic chemicals, but without informing them what the legislation would actually do or not do to eliminate these toxins.
In the "They Put What in a Cigarette?" activity, kids are urged to create a display that tells people about the ingredients in tobacco and their common uses as poisons or toxins. For example, kids are to highlight the fact that cigarette smoke contains arsenic, which is used in rat poison and pesticides.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids makes a specific suggestion for a poster that kids can use. A large poster is displayed on the activity page which states "The FDA keeps arsenic out of lollipops, but not cigarettes." Clearly, the message that the Campaign is trying to get kids to send to Congress is that the FDA should be given regulatory authority over cigarettes because the Agency could then get rid of all the toxic constituents in tobacco smoke.
This is a sham. The FDA legislation would not allow the Agency to require the elimination of all the toxic constituents in cigarette smoke, and in fact, it is not clear whether the Agency could even require the elimination of one such constituent. We don't know whether it is technologically possible for cigarette companies to selectively remove a specific chemical from the smoke, and if it is not possible, then the FDA cannot require it to be done, no matter how many lives it would save, according to a loophole in the legislation.
Passage of the FDA legislation is not going to eliminate arsenic (nor most of the thousands of toxic chemicals) from cigarette smoke, and the Campaign knows it. It is not that simple and the Campaign is misleading youths (apparently intentionally) into believing that this legislation is going to get rid of the toxins from cigarettes.
This is another unethical, and sleazy maneuver.
I think that we as public health practitioners have an ethical obligation not to misuse kids by misleading them and deceiving them in order to trick them into doing our lobbying for us. If we want kids to be involved in tobacco policy advocacy, that's great, but our obligation is to provide them with adequate information so that they can make their own informed decisions about what they choose to support or not to support.
I know for a fact that massive numbers of these kids would be appalled to find out that they were supporting a bill that is supported by Philip Morris. Nowhere in the Kick Butts Day manual does it mention that Philip Morris supports the bill. Not even in a rebuttal to the argument that because Philip Morris supports the bill, we should oppose it. It simply hides the truth from these kids.
If the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids wants to lobby for special interest legislation that will protect Philip Morris at the expense of the public's health, it certainly has the right to do so. But it doesn't have the right to trick children and teenagers into supporting this legislation without knowing that they are expressing support for a specific piece of legislation, and without knowing the details of what that legislation encompasses, or the history behind it.
That the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has run a campaign of deception among its constituents (whom it has repeatedly failed to inform of the truth) is unfortunate. But that the Campaign is waging a campaign of deception among the nation's youths is disgraceful and appalling.
Note: One of the activities outlined by the Campaign encourages kids to set up a boxing match where people simulate physical violence against tobacco company executives by punching a mock tobacco industry representative. I could understand punching a cigarette or even a cigarette company logo, but to punch a real person and simulate committing violence against an individual is completely uncalled for and I condemn it.