Thursday, September 01, 2011

In Embarrassment for National Anti-Smoking Groups and Politicians, Tobacco Companies Instruct Them on How to Properly Conduct Their Business

In a major embarrassment for the national anti-smoking groups and members of Congress who have painted themselves as wanting to reduce smoking rates, several of the nation's tobacco companies have provided a scathing, yet correct critique of their efforts and insightful recommendations of what they should be doing if they were seriously interested in reducing tobacco use.

When even the tobacco companies criticize you for not doing the right things to reduce tobacco use, it should wake you up, or at least give you pause to consider your actions.

The critique of current anti-smoking efforts comes in the form of the legal brief submitted by Reynolds American, Lorillard, Commonwealth Brands, and Santa Fe Tobacco Company seeking to overturn the graphic warning label requirement.

One of the points made in the brief is that the requirement for large graphic warning labels is not narrowly tailored as it is not the least restrictive policy that would advance the government's interest in warning consumers about the hazards of smoking. Moreover, the tobacco companies argue that there are far more effective ways to reduce smoking than showing smokers gory pictures.

In particular, the tobacco companies put forward two alternative ideas which, unlike the warning labels, are evidence-based and have been shown to substantially reduce smoking rates.

1. The tobacco companies point out that the federal government could require states to spend a significant amount of their Master Settlement Agreement proceeds on tobacco control programs. This requirement could be in the form of tying federal funding to states having allocated a certain proportion of MSA revenue to anti-smoking programs.

The companies write: "The MSA annually provides the States with billions of dollars intended for tobacco control programs. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has found that requiring the States to increase the allocation of MSA funds to youth tobacco prevention—from the meager 3.5% recently employed to the still-modest CDC-recommended 15%—would be effective in reducing tobacco use. ... The Government therefore could use its power under the Spending Clause ... to condition receipt of federal funds on States’ allocation of MSA funds in accordance with CDC recommendations."

2. The tobacco companies also point out that the federal government could increase the cigarette tax, which would lead to a reduction in cigarette consumption.

The companies write: "The Government could also consider whether increased cigarette taxes, which have been shown to reduce cigarette consumption, would be at least as effective as the Rule."

The Rest of the Story

I believe that if the national anti-smoking groups and members of Congress who supposedly want to reduce smoking rates had implemented the tobacco companies' recommendations, rather than become obsessed with the inane idea of asking the FDA to regulate the "safety" of tobacco products and relying upon warnings on the cigarette packs to discourage smoking, the field of tobacco control would be in a drastically better place than it is today.

While raising the federal cigarette excise tax would itself reduce smoking rates, allocating those revenues towards state-of-the-art anti-smoking programs in all 50 states, combined with requiring states to allocate a minimum proportion of their MSA payments to such programs, would represent the most effective national strategy for tobacco control in history.

Imagine if all 50 states implemented tobacco control programs similar to that in California, the only state with a sustained, comprehensive tobacco control program for the past two decades. Imagine if those programs included a focus on reaching disadvantaged communities, including communities of color. Imagine, for example, if the money were available to provide Pathways to Freedom to every African American smoker who desired to quit smoking. Imagine if all states implemented anti-smoking television commercials like those used in the "truth" campaign.

This is where the anti-smoking groups and Congress should have directed their efforts over the past five years, rather than creating an untenable system by which the agency charged with protecting the nation's food and drug supply is charged with somehow ensuring that cigarettes are "safe," which is an impossible task that wastes precious resources.

I think it is embarrassing that at the end of the day, the tobacco companies - and not the national anti-smoking groups (i.e, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, etc.) - have put together an effective strategy for reducing tobacco use, while the national anti-smoking groups have instead created a purposeless federal bureaucracy that is going to spend millions of dollars but effect no substantial changes in either cigarette safety or cigarette smoking rates.

It is one thing for other tobacco control advocates to point out to these anti-smoking groups that perhaps the strategies they are pursuing are not the most effective. It is downright embarrassing, however, when the tobacco companies themselves point out that the strategies being promoted by those groups are the least effective ones available, and then they go ahead and lay out the strategies that would actually make a huge dent in cigarette sales.

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