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Disinformation campaigns hit Albany

The strategy of wealthy corporations seeking to influence public policy follows a “political cookbook” first devised in the 1960s. At that time, the tobacco industry hatched a plan to attack government regulation after the US Surgeon General’s report on the health hazards of smoking.

The plan was complex and comprehensive, but it included a few key strategies: undermine the science with funded “experts” willing to advance Big Tobacco’s perspectives; fund “front groups” of aligned businesses and associations that lacked the moral backbone to reject its donations; and shower elected officials with campaign contributions and other gifts in order to buy political fealty. These strategies, coupled with well-funded public disinformation campaigns to sow doubt, bamboozled the public and for decades blocked the enactment of meaningful public health protections.

As a result, millions experienced needless diseases and early deaths– a plague upon America and the world.

But public health advocates uncovered the deceptions and tactics of the tobacco lobby and reversed the debate. For the past twenty years, tobacco use has shrunk, the industry has paid hundreds of billions of dollars in public health damages, and its political influence has waned.

During this time, the oil industry was taking notes. After its own scientists reported that the burning of oil, coal, and gas would heat up the planet and could lead to catastrophic consequences for all humanity, the industry sprang into action. It closed its scientific research and began its own disinformation campaign of attacking independent science, funding front groups, and investing in political mouthpieces of all kinds.

Their campaign has worked – and continues to work throughout much of America. Yet, in New York, the public interest pushed back and stopped the effort to allow industrial scale extraction of gas through “fracking” and pushed forward meaningful environmental measures to shift the state away from the reliance on fossil fuels for its power.

Despite the positive work done to combat tobacco addiction and to move toward reliance on non-fossil-fuel power, both the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have recently advanced new disinformation campaigns in New York.

The most widely-reported is the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to roll back the state’s efforts to reduce its reliance on oil and gas for power. As reported in the New York Times, last year the gas industry spent nearly a million dollars to block the state’s efforts to require that new buildings rely on electricity for power and heat, not fossil fuels. This year’s version focuses on the ludicrous campaign to scare New Yorkers into thinking that the government is looking to take away gas stoves. The industry is spending big on a public relations campaign, and presumably showering money on allied groups and elected officials.

This time, the tobacco industry is following the oil and gas lobby.

Industry groups, bolstered by the big bucks of the tobacco lobby, are lining up in opposition to Governor Hochul’s proposed ban on flavored tobacco products, as well as her proposed $1-a-pack hike in cigarette taxes.

Why is the governor proposing a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco? Currently, flavored cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes (“vapes”) are banned for sale in New York. In 2009, the Congress banned the sale of flavored cigarettes – except menthol flavors. In New York, the state bans the sale of all flavors in vapes.

The reason for the current restriction is pretty obvious – flavored cigarettes and vapes are designed to make it easier for kids to suck in the harsh emissions from these products. The sweeter the taste, the easier it is to get hooked.

Governor Hochul’s plan plugs the remaining gaps – other flavored tobacco products, such as that found in cigars, cigarillos, and chew, as well as a ban on menthol flavoring.

The industry is fighting back hard, arguing that forbidding flavors impacts adults’ “choice.” But it is obvious to anyone who has watched the industry, and their front groups, that they know they need flavorings to entice and keep new generations of hooked tobacco users to replace those who quit, get sick, or die. Otherwise, their industry will itself die.

Thus, the tobacco industry has organized a new disinformation campaign to undermine the science. It’s enlisting its usual allies – those who sell these deadly products – as well as adding hired public relations firms to push their deadly opposition.

New Yorkers have seen their poisonous playbooks before, but it’s been a while since the tobacco lobby got involved in a high-visibility effort.

Don’t be fooled. Both Big Oil and Big Tobacco are using their bags of money and tricks to once again block needed public health and environmental protections. This time, the governor and state lawmakers should blow away the smokescreens and put the public interest first. These fights are likely to play out in the budget, so we’ll know soon enough whether lawmakers have the spine to stand up to these powerful special interests and their disinformation campaigns.

Blair Horner is executive 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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