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The Tobacco Industry and Dirty Politics

INFACT
June 30th, 1997

The tobacco industry offers a compelling case study in the breakdown of democratic principles. Facing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of their deadly product in the US, tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco set the pace for the spending frenzy of 1996. Philip Morris was the #1 contributor overall in the federal election cycle, and spent over $12 million to lobby federal officials in just the first six months of the election year. RJR Nabisco was a top corporate donor, especially of unregulated "soft" money, and is a pioneer in "astroturf" lobbying to rally its consumers behind the corporate agenda.


The Tobacco Industry: How Corporate Influence Kills

Each year three million people around the world die from tobacco-related illnesses. In the US, tobacco kills more than 400,000 people each year, and medical care for tobacco-related illnesses costs $50 billion annually. The World Health Organization projects that the yearly death toll from tobacco will rise to 10 million by the 2020swith seven million of those deaths striking economically poor countries. Of the one million US teens hooked each year on cigarettes, one-third or more will eventually die from tobacco-related illnesses. If current trends continue, over 200 million of today's children and teenagers around the world will lose their lives to this addictive product.

The tobacco industry provides one of the clearest cases of corporate influence drowning out the public's voice. Tobacco is a key crop in just six US states, but the tobacco industry's power is entrenched in every state as well as in Washington, DC. Until 1983, the tobacco lobby had never lost a battle in Congress. Measures that appeared to rein in the industry were actually shaped in large part by Big Tobacco to avoid more serious regulations. Of some 174 pieces of federal public health legislation introduced in the late 1980s and early 1990s, only two passed. The real successes occurred at the local level. So until the Food and Drug Administration action in mid-1996, nothing significant had been done to curb the promotion of this deadly product to children. The closer the voters are to the issue, and the more power they have over it, the less successful the tobacco lobby has been in fighting regulations. For this reason, the tobacco industry has pushed for preemptiontaking away people's power to enact local ordinances more restrictive than the state or federal standard.

Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco and the other tobacco companies spend on average $5 billion annually in the US alone to advertise and promote their deadly products. Most of this promotion is aimed at children, something the FDA has recognized and taken action to prevent.

In 1996 there was a flood of internal industry documents revealing just how much, and for how long, the tobacco giants have known about the addictiveness of nicotineand the lengths to which they have gone to conceal the facts. The industry has colluded at least since 1964 to hold off lawsuits and regulations. More than 20 states are currently suing the tobacco industry to recover some of the medical costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses.

The tobacco industry is working with key political allies and some attorneys general to broker a legislative deal that would limit corporate liability in civil lawsuits and eliminate FDA regulation. The tobacco industry even sued the FDA to prevent regulation of tobacco in 1997. The judge in the case was a former tobacco lobbyist, and RJR Nabisco's lawyer, Richard Cooper, is former general counsel of the FDA, with insider knowledge of the agency and credibility with his former colleagues.

Faced with growing challenges on so many fronts, the tobacco industry helped lead the way to the most expensive federal elections ever in 1996. Philip Morris was the #1 contributor overall, and RJR Nabisco ranked seventh.

Excerpted from INFACT's website. INFACT is a national grassroots corporate watchdog organization founded in 1977.