Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Anti-Smoking Groups Intervene in Support of New York City Law Requiring Graphic Anti-Smoking Posters Wherever Tobacco Products are Sold

Twenty-five anti-smoking groups, including the American Medical Association, American Legacy Foundation, American Cancer Society, and American Lung Association, have intervened by filing an amicus brief in support of New York City's recently enacted law which requires stores that sell tobacco products to display city-designed, graphic anti-smoking posters at places where these products are offered for sale. The three major tobacco companies have challenged the constitutionality of this law, arguing that the requirement for graphic warnings violates the First Amendment rights of retail stores.

According to the press release, Cheryl G. Healton, DrPH, president and CEO of Legacy, stated: "This filing reiterates how serious public health and policy leaders are about doing everything it takes to put an end to the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from tobacco in this country every year. ... Simply put, public health must always trump tobacco sales."

The Rest of the Story

If these groups are serious about doing everything it takes to put an end to the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from tobacco in this country, then why did most of these very same organizations support legislation that:
  • Ensures that nicotine will never be removed from tobacco products;
  • Exempts menthol from the ban on all other flavored cigarettes;
  • Restricts the ability of the FDA to increase the age of sale of tobacco products;
  • Precludes the FDA from regulating the places where cigarettes can be sold;
  • Makes it impossible for reduced risk products to be successfully developed and marketed; and
  • Puts the government in the position of officially approving cigarettes.
These organizations are a bunch of hypocrites. They state that they are doing everything possible to put an end to the hundreds of thousands of needless deaths from tobacco, yet at the same time, they worked to enact legislation which institutionalizes tobacco products, makes it impossible for safer tobacco products to enter the market, and ensures that youth access to tobacco cannot be effectively curtailed.

Now, these groups are once again promoting feel-good legislation that does very little to actually reduce tobacco use, but allows them to pretend that they are doing something meaningful.

These groups do not have the courage to stand up for actions that would actually be effective. They are unwilling to take a stand on principle, rather than on politics and political feasibility.

If tobacco products are so unsuitable for public consumption that New York City must require stores to actively discourage customers from buying their own products, then New York City needs to simply prohibit stores from selling that product. Clearly, it is not the public's health that is of paramount importance here - it is preserving cigarette sales in the city.

Thus, this law does the exact opposite of what its anti-smoking supporters say it does: it puts economic profits above public health.

If these groups support such extreme intervention on the part of New York City -requiring stores to actively discourage their customers from buying their products with graphic posters urging their customers not to buy their products - then why do they not support the step of simply telling these stores: "Sorry, but these products are so deadly that we cannot allow you to sell them."

The answer, obviously, is that these organizations are putting tobacco sales above the public's health. While these posters will do very little to discourage people from smoking, a ban on the sale of tobacco in they City would likely have a significant effect - especially in terms of reducing youth smoking. But no, instead of doing something that would actually make a difference, these groups are supporting a feel-good policy that makes absolutely no sense and caves in to political pressure and purely economic concerns.

To be sure, I am a strong supporter of anti-tobacco advertising campaigns that discourage kids from starting to smoke and encourage existing smokers to quit. In fact, anti-tobacco advertising is - in my view - the appropriate way for the federal government to address the tobacco problem, rather than wasting its time regulating the ingredients in tobacco products. I would therefore be supportive of any efforts to encourage retailers to voluntarily agree to display tobacco warnings or educational posters to discourage tobacco use.

However, this is not a voluntary campaign. It is a government mandate that stores which sell tobacco must actively discourage their customers from buying the products which they sell. If the state health department believes that tobacco products are so harmful that retailers must be forced to urge customers not to buy their own merchandise, then the state should simply not be allowing these products to be sold. If the state is going to allow stores to sell these products, then I believe it is excessive government intervention to tell stores that they can sell them, but they have to discourage anyone from actually buying them.

Requiring retailers to actively discourage customers from buying their products seems to me to be an unreasonable degree of government intrusion. The reasoning that would support such an intervention would equally apply to all harmful products sold by businesses.

Would it be appropriate for the government to require all grocery stores to put graphic warning posters near the junk food aisle urging customers not to purchase these unhealthy snacks?

Would it be reasonable for the government to require grocery stores to post graphic posters at the soda aisle urging customers not to purchase soda because of the morbidity and mortality caused by obesity, to which soda contributes significantly?

Should tanning salons be required to post disgusting pictures of skin cancers at their entrances, urging potential customers not to enter?

Should wood stove stores be required to post graphic posters depicting the horrible consequences of lung disease, which we know is caused by wood smoke exposure?

Should fast food restaurants have to post large, graphic posters showing the terrible health consequences of excessive fat intake, actively discouraging potential customers from eating there?

If these anti-smoking groups were seriously concerned about reducing tobacco use, they should have spent their time and resources promoting federal funding for anti-smoking media campaigns in all 50 states, rather than wasting their time on trying to regulate the safety of a deadly product. They are hypocrites.

No comments: