Blair Horner: Big Tobacco Strikes Back | WAMC

Blair Horner: Big Tobacco Strikes Back

Jan 27, 2020

On January 11, 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General issued his first report on the dangers of smoking.  Based on more than 7,000 articles relating to smoking and disease then available in the medical literature, the Surgeon General’s report concluded that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer. 

The result was relatively mild; in 1966 the federal government required a health warning on cigarette packages and in 1970 it banned cigarette advertising in the broadcasting media.  The industry figured out how to circumvent these obstacles.  They started using cartoon characters, they offered candy-flavored tobacco products, they placed their products in popular movies, and advertised in magazines aimed at women, African Americans, and sports fans.  All with the goal of making cigarette smoking glamorous and to appeal to kids.  They knew that virtually all smokers started in their early teens; getting kids hooked was key to replacing the customers that were dying from tobacco diseases.

As the evidence began to pile up that exposure to tobacco smoke by non-smokers caused disease, public health advocates pushed for action to curb environmental tobacco smoke exposure.  In the late 1980s, New York State – considered a progressive state – enacted the first limited steps to ban smoking in certain work and public places.  Two decades later – and nearly 40 years after the first Surgeon General report – a more expansive workplace and public space tobacco use ban was enacted.

Why did it take so long for public policy to catch up to the science?  The political power of the tobacco lobby.  In New York for years the tobacco lobby hired lobbyists with close connections to governors and state lawmakers, funneled massive donations to friendly charities, showered public officials with gifts such as freebies to the U.S. Open, hard-to-get theater tickets, lots of free meals, and made big campaign contributions. 

The science was never the problem, the corruption of New York’s political system was.

It wasn’t until the politics changed that New York acted.  In a series of media investigations – led by the NY Times, it became clear that the tobacco industry had illegally – and legally – influenced Albany’s decision making.  Nearly all elected officials in New York were implicated.  It became an important act of political survival for elected officials to distance themselves from Big Tobacco.  Soon after the scandal was revealed they passed laws like banning smoking in public places and all workplaces – including bars.  They raised the cigarette tax to the highest in the nation.  They approved the first-in-the-nation requirement that cigarettes had to meet rigorous fire safety standards.

The state Democratic Party even swore to not accept campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.

And for a while it worked.  The tobacco industry’s power was dramatically weakened, and lives were saved.  According to the New York State Health Department, tens of thousands of New Yorkers were spared from tobacco-related diseases due to the pro-health actions taken.

But now, Big Tobacco is back.

While tobacco use dwindled, the industry identified a new way to sell their addictive products – electronic cigarettes.  The industry spent money to invest in the new nicotine delivery devices and we are now seeing the pay-offs – about one third of all high school students have illegally used an e-cig.  Use is growing dramatically, and so is the body count.

Governor Cuomo called for action to curtail the sale of flavored e-cigs.  One of the devilish ways the industry replaces the smokers who quit or die is to target young people.  In New York, the average age for beginning smokers is 13, despite laws banning sales to minors.  The e-cig industry took a page from Big Tobacco’s past and started selling vapes with candy flavors.  And it worked.

Governor Cuomo has advanced legislation that bans the sale of flavored e-cigs, but leaves in place the sale of flavored conventional tobacco products.  And opposition to even this approach is fierce in the Legislature.  The state Capitol has been flooded with tobacco and e-cig lobbyists all with the goal of protecting the Merchants of Death.

How these individuals sleep at night is beyond me.  These products serve no public purpose, they are designed to addict, harm health, cause early, painful deaths for many users and target children.

How our elected officials listen to the pleas of these death merchants and their paid mouthpieces is something that voters should know about.  Because voter anger at putting the wealth of Big Tobacco ahead of the health of children is not only despicable, but politically dangerous.

This is an election year.  Let’s see if New York – the supposed progressive capital of the nation – protects kids and bans flavored vapes and tobacco.  It’s time to put Count Dracula back in his grave.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

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