Thursday, December 22, 2011

2011 Hypocrisy of the Year Award

As the holidays approach, The Rest of the Story will be posting a number of end-of-the-year features, including the eagerly-awaited annual Hypocrisy of the Year awards and the highly-anticipated Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire awards.

We kick off these end-of-year features, which are meant to provide a moment of reflection on the practice of tobacco control during the past year, with the announcement of the 2011 Hypocrisy of the Year Award.

The 2011 Hypocrisy of the Year Award

This year's award is presented to ...

... Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who closed out his 2011 political year by calling on the FDA to ban all flavored cigars. In a letter to the FDA Commissioner from Durbin and three other Senators, they wrote: "Cigars with candy-like flavorings such as strawberry, watermelon, vanilla and chocolate attract kids to smoking and help hook them on this addictive habit. Congress helped protect young people from the harmful effects of tobacco by banning flavored cigarettes. ... We urge FDA to immediately close the current regulatory loopholes and prohibit flavored cigars in the interest of public health."

Apparently, Senator Durbin is aware that flavorings in tobacco products may attract youth and believes that regulatory loopholes that allow tobacco companies to entice youth to smoke with the use of product flavorings should be banned. He also boasts about the fact that he voted for legislation that banned all flavored cigarettes.

Shall we congratulate the Senator for his principled stand in support of the nation's youth and his standing up to Big Tobacco to protect the health of our children?

The Rest of the Story

Not so much.

At the same time that Senator Durbin decries the loophole that allows flavored cigars to remain on the market, he remains silent about the loophole - for which he was partly responsible - that allows tobacco companies to continue to entice youth smokers by adding a flavoring to their cigarettes: menthol.

Senator Durbin is not telling the truth when he asserts that all flavored cigarettes have been banned. Not so. All flavored cigarettes with the exception of menthol cigarettes have been banned. And while the banned flavorings were found in no more than about 0.1% of the youth market (and in not a single brand manufactured by Big Tobacco), menthol cigarettes represent about half of the cigarettes smoked by our nation's youth.

Why did Senator Durbin agree to support legislation that contained a menthol exemption which put Big Tobacco profits ahead of the health of the nation's children? Because Philip Morris, the largest producer of menthol cigarettes, demanded that the menthol exemption remain in the bill. Thus, the rest of the story is that Senator Durbin caved in to the financial interests of Philip Morris, selling out the health of the nation's children, and especially the nation's African American children (of whom about 80% of smokers smoke menthol cigarette brands).

Senator Durbin supported the menthol exemption even though the National African American Tobacco Prevention Network (NAATPN) made its opposition to this exemption very clear:

"'It is a national disgrace and a tragedy that these lethal menthol products have been allowed to be marketed so disproportionately to African-American youth – or to any youth for that matter,' said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. 'The FDA should help millions of Americans avoid tobacco-related death and disease by banning menthol flavoring in cigarettes.' 'NAATPN raised the issue of menthol as a tobacco additive nearly three years ago, as the legislation was being developed to give authority to the FDA to regulate tobacco for the first time,' said William S. Robinson, NAATPN's executive director. 'We thought then, and still do now, that the exemption of menthol as a banned flavoring is wrong, discriminatory in its impact, and is a major factor in continuing the health-related disparities that currently exist.'"

When the Tobacco Act passed, Senator Durbin was quoted as saying: "This is a bill that will protect children and will protect America. Every day that we don't act, 3,500 American kids - children - will light up for the first time."

Certainly, Senator Durbin couldn't have been suggesting that by getting rid of cigarette flavorings that appeal to 0.1% of youth, we are going to be protecting 3500 children from lighting up for the first time. But the truth is that the legislation Durbin championed made it a point to prevent putting any serious dent in youth smoking by exempting the menthol flavorings which are enjoyed by a full 50% of youth. What Durbin did was ban the flavorings that no kids were using, and exempt the one flavoring which one in two were hooked on.

Today, how can Senator Durbin have the gall to stand in front of the American people and talk about the need to close legislative loopholes when he created a loophole that tobacco companies can drive a menthol cigarette-filled Mack truck through? And even if he now regrets including the menthol exemption, why is he now only calling on the FDA to ban flavored cigars? Where is his letter urging the FDA to close the menthol cigarette loophole that he created to appease Philip Morris?

For the starkness and boldness of this hypocrisy, The Rest of the Story presents the 2011 Hypocrisy of the Year Award to Senator Dick Durbin.

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