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The Fight Against Big Tobacco: Domestic Battles, Global Implications

by Robert WeissmanSpecial to CorpWatch
April 26th, 2001

As a new round of negotiations on an international treaty controlling the spread of tobacco use opens in Geneva, it is still unclear what the Bush administration's position will be. What is clear, however, is that international tobacco control will almost certainly not be a priority for the Bush administration. Few people in the United States have even heard of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), as the treaty spearheaded by the World Health Organization is known. But the White House will face a series of high-profile domestic tobacco policy battles that will have significant implications for reining in global tobacco.

First, the administration will have to decide whether to continue the federal lawsuit seeking reimbursement for healthcare costs from tobacco companies and alleging a conspiracy to defraud the government. During the campaign, Bush suggested that the country had seen "enough" tobacco lawsuits, but he did not take a clear stand on the case. Attorney General John Ashcroft also refused to take a firm position on the suit during his confirmation hearings. Dismissal of the suit, or an administration commitment not to prosecute it seriously, is high on the industry's political wish list.

If the U.S. government does drop the suit, it could break the momentum of the growing efforts by other countries to sue tobacco companies for healthcare costs, either in U.S. courts or in their home country courts.

Advocates of tobacco control in Congress also intend to force the administration to take a stand on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) regulation of tobacco. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down proposed tobacco marketing regulations issued by the FDA, holding that the FDA does not have authority to regulate tobacco. Representatives Henry Waxman, D-California, Greg Gasket, R-Iowa, and John Dingell, D-Michigan have already introduced legislation that would grant FDA authority over tobacco. With Philip Morris recently agreeing that it will accept FDA regulation, the dispute may soon evolve into how, not whether, the FDA will regulate.

While no one expects the FDA to take bold steps to regulate Philip Morris' overseas operations, whether and how the FDA regulates tobacco at the national level may significantly affect the U.S. posture in the tobacco Framework negotiations. So far, the U.S. position has been that it cannot agree to provisions that force the United States to implement domestic measures more stringent than those now in place, according to Judith Wakened of Tobacco-Free Kids.


Local Battles, Global Impacts

Meanwhile, the most aggressive tobacco campaigning in the United States, and the most bitter policy disputes, are occurring at the state and local level. These conflicts primarily revolve around local efforts to adopt smoke-free ordinances, which ban smoking in workplaces, restaurants and occasionally in bars. The passage of smoke-free regulations has been the leading accomplishment of the U.S. tobacco control movement (along with litigation) -- the United States badly trails much of the world in regulations on everything from advertising to cigarette labeling.

Smoke-free ordinances have long ranked atop the industry list of concern. The tobacco industry worries that these ordinances stigmatize smoking, reduce smoking opportunities, thereby cutting back the amount of tobacco smokers consume and making it more likely that they will quit. Tobacco control advocates like smoke-free ordinances for all of these reasons, plus the fact that they protect nonsmokers from highly carcinogenic second-hand smoke.

The industry's response to smoke-free ordinances has been implacable. It seeks state preemption -- state rules that bar localities from adopting more stringent regulations. When preemption efforts fail, it fights city by city, opposing the regulations and proposing "ventilation requirements" instead of smoke-free rules.

For local organizers, the "new" Philip Morris displayed in the company's seemingly more flexible public posture on issues like the Framework Convention or FDA regulation, is the same as the old Philip Morris. It fights health regulations, and it fights hard.

Consider the recent experience of Central Point, in the Southwest corner of Oregon. There, the City Council voted in January 2000 to enact an ordinance which prohibits open displays of tobacco products, penalizes retailers who repeatedly sell to kids and prohibits smoking in all enclosed indoor places, including workplaces, with the exception of private homes, bars and tobacco stores.

"The response by Big Tobacco was immediate," says Dr. Dave Gilmore, a local activist. "A few hours prior to passage of the ordinance, petitions were taken out to both recall our mayor and two anti-tobacco council members and to repeal the ordinance."

The National Smoker's Alliance (NSA), a proxy for Phillip Morris, sent a team to Central Point to coordinate the anti-ordinance campaign, Gilmore explains. The anti-ordinance campaigners sought, unsuccessfully, to have Gilmore's employer, Providence Hospital, direct him to cease actively supporting the ordinance. When the hospital refused, Gilmore says, his clinic was picketed by pro-tobacco forces which included members of the Southern Oregon Militia.

Both the recall and repeal efforts failed, with the ordinance winning support of 62 percent of voters in a September election.

"The ordinance has exceeded expectations," Gilmore says. "Prior to the September vote, the manager of our local Abby's Pizza was adamantly opposed to the ordinance. He changed his stance afterward, when sales increased. After reviewing the financial impact of the smoking ordinance on their outlet in Central Point, Abby's went smoke-free statewide," he added.

While many local activists who have waged Central Point-type campaigns have grown increasingly aware over the last decade or so of the tobacco industry's efforts to expand into overseas markets, most have not seen any way to plug into international issues. That has begun to change in recent years, as the San Francisco Tobacco-Free Project and the Washington, D.C.-based Essential Action have begun coordinating partnership programs between local tobacco control advocates in the United States and activists in developing countries and the former Eastern bloc.

For example, Pat Hale, the training manager for the tobacco prevention and education program in Oregon works with a Bulgarian group, Women Against Tobacco. Together, they are doing school surveys, collecting data on students' smoking rates and exposure to second-hand smoke. They hope the comparative data will help spur stronger regulations in both places, especially Bulgaria, where smoking restrictions are minimal.

Organizers believe the partnership system helps activists in all countries. Developing country partners benefit from access to information and some resource support. The buddy arrangements help U.S. groups' efforts to vilify the tobacco companies -- an important goal for reducing youth smoking -- and to reach out to ethnic minorities. The partnerships should also serve to heighten the U.S. groups' interest in U.S. government policy on international tobacco issues.


First, Do No Harm

U.S. anti-tobacco advocates have made important strides in recent years -- through successful litigation, publication of internal industry documents, exposés of industry malfeasance and new, effective anti-smoking programs in states like Massachusetts and Florida. Although smoking rates have remained relatively flat, overall tobacco consumption in the United States has declined in recent years.

One consequence of the increasingly negative image of the tobacco industry, as well as the Clinton administration's belief that being anti-tobacco was a winning national issue, was that the once bipartisan tobacco industry has turned increasingly Republican. Most Democrats no longer want to be saddled with a tobacco industry affiliation.

In 1990, tobacco money split 53 to 47 percent in favor of the Republicans. In 2000 tobacco money favored the Republicans by a whopping 83-17 margin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Despite the numerous shortcomings of the Clinton-Gore administration's domestic and international tobacco policy, there is no question that tobacco represents one of the areas of true difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush.

The tobacco industry invested in the winning candidate (or at least the candidate who took office) and the party that controls both houses of Congress. And, like all corporate donors, Big Tobacco expects a return on its investment.

Robert Weissman is editor of Multinational Monitor magazine and co-director of Essential Action, a corporate accountability group.