Tobacco Politics

The dangers of tobacco have been known to us for a long time. Although the links with cancer were not verified until the middle of this century, we were well aware of harmful effects long before that. In spite of this, tobacco has for many years been America's most profitable cash crop, exporting brand icons such as Marlboros and Camels all over the world.

The first political coup for the industry was the exclusion of tobacco from the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, the legislation that lead to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As a result of lobbying by industry representatives, an entire class of injurious products was exempted from an act designed to protect Americans from harmful substances. Even today, the FDA, which leads the world on food and drug safety issues, does not in any way regulate tobacco products.

Money Talks

It's no secret in the States that tobacco companies make regular donations to both sides of Congress. Individuals have recieved cheques totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars from various companies, and happily admit to it. In June 1995, the chairman of the House Republican Conference distributed campaign cheques from a Kentucky tobacco corporation, to representatives on the floor of the House while Congress was in session. Above and beyond the palm-greasing is the regular entertainment of Congress people by the tobacco companies. Politicians and their spouses are frequently sent on expenses-paid, fact-finding holidays to the destination of their choice.

In return, the politicians effectively allow the lobby to pursue its own agenda. The health warnings that have appeared on cigarette packets since the 1960's have provided a legal loophole for the lawyers to climb through, if the going gets tough. Excise duties have been minimal and virtually unchanged since 1951. Although many bills aimed at raising the duty on tobacco have been tabled since the 1980's, none have passed.

In Britain, we like to think we are a little more discrete. However, the influence of the industry over our politicians is reflected in a few notable events. In the 1992 General Election, the tobacco industry donated all its advertising hoardings to the Conservative Party, for campaign messages. Shortly before that, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accepted a consultancy post with one of the large British tobacco companies. The recently elected Labour government declared last year that their foreign policy would be ethical - and then allowed tobacco companies to use their foreign embassies to seek new markets and broker trade deals. Former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke is now deputy chairman of BAT.

Ah, say the British apologists. Don't we have the highest taxes on cigarettes in the EC? True - taxes on cigarettes in the UK are now astronomical, and a packet of fags in Britain is more expensive than almost anywhere on the planet. But this has just driven the business into the hands of smugglers. It is estimated that about 10% of regular cigarettes, and 70% of rolling tobacco smoked in Britain are now contraband. In a recent report, it was revealed that British companies were exporting millions of cigarettes per day into the tiny principality of Andorra - about seventy for every man, woman and child in the area. Almost all these cigarettes were destined for the black market.

Bullshit Walks

The tobacco barons kill off approximately 1% of their clientele per year. This is not good PR. In order to survive, they have to recruit new addicts at the rate of hundreds of thousands per year. So they don't want people to worry too much about the health risks.

Outside Parlaiment and Congress, the tobacco companies meet with a less sympathetic hearing. The medical community, along with the anti-smoking lobby, are all active in promoting clean-air campaigns, quit-lines and other smoking restrictions. A great many smokers, concerned for their own health, appreciate the problems and support these activities.

The industry has responded with a variety of tactics. In the fifties, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, aka the Council for Tobacco Research was formed. Posturing as an independent organisation, the Committee trumpeted its commitment to public health, and promptly set about digging up and publicising spurious scientific evidence which downplayed the harm to human health. Another organisation, established at the same time, was the Tobacco Institute, which has now grown into a well-oiled PR / lobbying machine, and a formidable political force. These two establishments have become the means by which the tobacco industry lends credibility to its disinformation.

More ammunition in the campaign is provided by the smokers themselves. Phillip Morris (Marlboro) have poured millions of dollars into grassroots group the National Smoker's Alliance. This group, and others like it, coordinates smokers to campaign for their rights to ruin their health, while other industry groups such as the Tobacco Institute publicly distance themselves from these pro-smoking lobbyists. Through a combination of hi-tech marketing and street-level canvassing by members, the NSA has expanded its membership to up to three million.

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