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Blair Horner: Big Tobacco Rises From The Ashes Again

It wasn’t long ago when it seemed that the tobacco lobby’s stranglehold over New York policymaking was finally broken.  In addition to federal court decisions, state actions were being taken.  During the years of the Pataki Administration, the state raised its tobacco tax, enacted one of the nation’s most sweeping restrictions on smoking in public places and in work environments. The Spitzer Administration bolstered funding for the state’s tobacco control efforts, helping it rise to the 5th most well-resourced program in the nation.  In the Paterson Administration, New York raised its tobacco tax rate to the highest in the nation.

Meanwhile, the New York State Department of Health implemented a robustly-funded, evidence-based, anti-smoking campaign.  As tobacco use continued to cause avoidable misery, addiction, disease and early deaths, the smoking rate among adults and children fell to unprecedented lows.  New York seemed poised to have secured a historic public health achievement that saved thousands of lives and reduced strains on our healthcare delivery system.

From 2000 through 2008, New York policymakers took major steps—banning smoking in all public and workplaces, raising tobacco taxes, mandating that all cigarettes had to meet fire safety standards—that made New York the nation’s leader in protecting the public’s health.

Since that time however, the tobacco lobby rebuilt its strength.  During the years 2011 through 2013, the tobacco industry’s political operation has strengthened and boasts of having employed 27 lobbying firms across the state.

The growing political clout of the tobacco lobby has paid off.  Funding for the state’s tobacco control program has been slashed by half and now ranks 21st in the nation in terms of adequacy.  No new significant tobacco control measures have been enacted by the current Cuomo Administration during its three years and none is proposed for the fourth year of the governor’s term.\

New York must once again reclaim its national leadership as the place where meaningful steps are being taken and progress consistently is made to reduce the devastation caused by tobacco use. 

·         In the same way as they refuse contributions from organized crime, political parties and all candidates for office should publicly kick the addiction to tobacco money—an industry which has been convicted of racketeering in federal court. 

·         Lobbying firms should refuse to represent an unethical and murderous industry—and if not, health clients should refuse to hire firms that do business with them. For example, in the years 2011 and 2012 one firms represented tobacco giant Altria (formerly Philip Morris) as well as Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

·         Lastly and most importantly, lawmakers must take steps to enhance the public’s health by dramatically bolstering funding of the state’s tobacco control program, restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products, and curtailing the industry’s advertising its products in retail stores.

The costs from tobacco use to New York is enormous:  Tens of thousands of New Yorkers’ lives are shortened due to tobacco use, health care systems must absorb the additional costs of treating tobacco users, and billions of tax dollars are expended to cover the medical costs of treating tobacco users who receive coverage through government programs.  And these costs are avoidable, we know how to curb this menace, it only takes the political will to take on the tobacco lobby.

The public will know soon whether its democratically elected representatives prioritize health, or if New York has once again become “Marlboro Country.”

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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