Monday, June 29, 2009

What are the Health Groups Smoking? How Could a Bill Championed by Philip Morris Possibly Result in a Huge Reduction in Youth Smoking?

The latest and saddest chapter of tobacco control history could easily have been prevented had only the anti-smoking and health groups applied a slight dose of common sense to their analysis of the FDA tobacco legislation.

As I've commented in the past week, this legislation is a huge hoax. It is a piece of legislation that is designed to make it look like Philip Morris, politicians, and the health groups are doing something about the smoking problem when in reality, the bill does nothing to challenge the status quo and contains provisions that are essentially window dressing: marginal changes that produce no meaningful or effective reductions in smoking or improvements in the safety of cigarettes and the protection of the public's health.

Even worse, it now gives cigarettes an FDA stamp of approval. Hundreds of thousands of Americans will continue to die from smoking-related disease, except now it will be with the blessing of the United States government and the health groups.

The reason for the failure of the bill to take meaningful action against tobacco is simple: it was crafted by Philip Morris. The nation's largest cigarette company was present at the negotiating table and had to give its approval to each provision in order for the bill to move forward.

So of course the bill is not going to meaningfully change the status quo or make any substantial reductions in youth smoking. If the bill were to substantially threaten cigarette sales and long-term profits by reducing the number of youth smokers, of course Philip Morris would not have supported this bill.

Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) wrote a very nice piece in the Salt Lake Tribune in which he explains that his opposition to the FDA tobacco legislation was not that the bill did too much to reduce youth smoking, but that it did too little. Senator Bennett opposed the bill specifically because it contained "loopholes that benefit Big Tobacco" and because he believes "Philip Morris should stay out of the process of writing tobacco legislation."

Bennett writes: "Recently, Congress passed Sen. Ted Kennedy's Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act and President Barack Obama signed it into law on Monday. At face value, this bill sounded like a good idea and it gained overwhelming support in both the House and Senate. However, its biggest support came from Big Tobacco, the very companies whose product the Food and Drug Administration will be asked to regulate. That fact gave me pause. When I looked at the fine print, I discovered that this bill increases one company's domination in the market, has little effect on reducing deaths and disease associated with tobacco, and places the authority of regulation of tobacco in the wrong hands. ... I'd still have voted for it if I had thought it would protect public health by focusing on prevention to reduce death and diseases associated with tobacco. However, reports indicate that the bill will achieve only modest results in improving public health. ... so let me be clear that my vote against the Kennedy bill does not mean that I do not support the intent of the bill. I opposed it because after reading the fine print, I was convinced we would do better if we told Philip Morris to stay out of the process of writing tobacco legislation."

The Rest of the Story

It is pitiful that the anti-smoking groups and health groups which supported this legislation are of the opinion that Philip Morris belongs in the business of crafting tobacco legislation and that inviting Philip Morris to the table where this legislation is hammered out is an appropriate way to formulate public health policy.

But it is truly mind-boggling that these groups would accept the premise that Philip Morris is a changed company and that somehow, it will now support legislation that will substantially reduce its profits by making a meaningful dent in youth smoking.

Frankly, Philip Morris would be irresponsible to its shareholders if it supported legislation that would significantly reduce youth smoking. That is the last thing in the world that Philip Morris wants if it is to remain in business with the kind of profits that it enjoys. Any executive who supported such a measure would be cast out of office immediately. And probably should be. After all, Philip Morris is not in the business of saving lives or protecting children. It's in the business of selling cigarettes.

I have long taught my public health students that the easiest way to evaluate a public health policy is to see if Philip Morris supports that policy or not. They have a lot more insight and a lot more research and experience available to them and a lot more is at stake for them than for us. Thus, they have to get it right. If they support a policy, you can be assured that it is not one that is going to reduce youth smoking and save lives to the extent that the health groups have boasted.

I have already presented a detailed analysis of the specific provisions of the legislation and a point-by-point accounting of the reasons why the bill will not reduce youth smoking, but will likely increase it. While this science-based argument did not work in changing the minds of the health groups, I am frankly surprised that the more common sense based argument did not sway these groups.

It is painfully obvious, even to the majority of the public I believe, that a bill supported by Philip Morris and crafted by the nation's largest cigarette company is not going to be one that is beneficial for the public's health.

To save lives, you either need to make cigarettes safer (which this bill does not do; and if anything it does the opposite by precluding safer cigarettes from the market) or you need to reduce smoking (which as Senator Bennett points out, this bill does essentially nothing to achieve and which is not going to occur in a Philip Morris-sponsored piece of legislation).

The rest of the story is that while the anti-smoking and health groups were unethical in their willingness to allow Philip Morris to craft legislation to determine the terms of their own regulation, these groups were stupid to fall for the notion that Philip Morris has suddenly changed and now supports measures that will substantially reduce its profits by decimating youth smoking.

The worst part of the story, however, is that these groups continue to lie about the nature of the legislation (that it was opposed by "slick tobacco lobbyists" and that it bans all cigarette flavorings). Timothy Carney, in his piece in the Washington Examiner last week, points out that Philip Morris lobbying far exceeds that of the next closest company and that the overwhelming amount of Big Tobacco lobbying regarding the FDA legislation was in favor of the bill.

As Carney writes: "President Barack Obama signed a bill Monday that the largest tobacco company in America had championed for years. Obama nevertheless claimed he had taken on Big Tobacco and won. ... But on Tuesday morning, the home page of Philip Morris, which controls a majority of the U.S. cigarette market, blared “Philip Morris Supports Federal Regulation of Tobacco.” Was Obama ignorant of the $40,000-a-day pro-regulation lobbying effort by the country’s biggest cigarette maker? Was Obama surprised by the applause Monday from Philip Morris’ parent company Altria, calling the bill “an important and historic achievement”? Altria’s support Monday didn’t reflect some conversion on the road to the Rose Garden. Altria stated it “has supported tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products for more than eight years.” ...

"Obama’s rhetoric painted the opposite picture. Obama said in signing the bill, “despite the best efforts and good progress made by so many leaders and advocates with us today, the tobacco industry and its special interest lobbying have generally won the day up on the Hill. … Fifteen years later, their campaign has finally failed. … Today, change has come to Washington.” The kernel of truth in Obama’s claims is that the smaller cigarette makers — perceiving that this bill will protect and enhance Philip Morris’ dominance of the industry — have mostly opposed the legislation. But it’s misleading to claim you’re battling the “tobacco industry” when you’re siding with the industry’s 900-pound gorilla. Philip Morris sells more cigarettes than every other company combined — representing 50.4 percent of the U.S. market in the fourth quarter of 2008. There were more packs of Marlboros sold in the United States in 2008 than all R.J. Reynolds and Lorillard brands combined." ...

"Regarding that “special interest lobbying” Obama claimed to be battling, Philip Morris is the unrivaled industry king. Since 2003, the tobacco lobby has spent $155 million. Altria spent a majority of that — $83 million. Although the rest of the industry was lobbying against this bill, most of the lobbying money was on the pro-regulation side. Altria retained 16 outside lobbying firms at the start of 2009 and has added four more since then, three of which were lobbying for this bill. Altria is also the leading campaign contributor in the industry. In 2008, Altria gave 66 percent more to politicians than did runner-up R.J. Reynolds."

"“When I ran for president,” Obama said Monday as he signed the Philip Morris-championed bill, “I did so because I believed that despite the power of the status quo and the influence of special interests, it was possible for us to bring change to Washington.” ... it’s hard to square this rhetoric with his signing this bill. ... Obama may represent “change,” but — in this case at least — not the sort you can believe in."

It is dishonest of the health groups to claim that they have taken on Big Tobacco and its slick lobbyists and won. What they've done is sat down with the biggest and slickest of the lobbyists and allowed them to write the legislation.

To then tell the American people that you've fought these lobbyists and won is dishonest and unethical. We deserve a lot better than this from the leading national health organizations in tobacco control. But we're not going to get it. So far, not a single one of these groups has corrected its dishonest communications to the public.

It's quite clear: lying is not acceptable for Big Tobacco. But it is acceptable for tobacco control organizations. As long as you're working "for the children" and not against them, you can lie all you want.

Of course, this means that Philip Morris is now working "for the children." It's only appropriate that we now allow them to start lying again since they're now on our side.

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