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Up in Smoke: How the Tobacco Industry Shaped the New Smoking Bill

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President Obama signed into law a bill last week that gives the US government broad regulatory power over cigarettes and other tobacco products. Obama said the law would curb the ability of tobacco companies to market their products to children. But several public health professionals have come out strongly against the new legislation. They argue that it was largely shaped by Philip Morris, now called Altria Group, the largest cigarette company in the country. We speak with Dr. Joel Nitzkin, chair of the Tobacco Control Task Force of the American Association of Public Health Physicians. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Last week, President Obama signed into law a bill that gives the US government broad regulatory power over cigarettes and other tobacco products. Obama, who is an occasional smoker himself, said the law would limit the power of the tobacco lobbyists on Capitol Hill and curb the ability of tobacco companies to market their products to children.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I know. I was one of these teenagers, and so I know how difficult it can be to break this habit when it’s been with you for a long time. And I also know that kids today don’t just start smoking for no reason. They’re aggressively targeted as customers by the tobacco industry. They’re exposed to a constant and insidious barrage of advertising where they live, where they learn, and where they play. And today, despite decades of lobbying and advertising by the tobacco industry, we’ve passed a law to help protect the next generation of Americans from growing up with a deadly habit that so many of our generation have lived with.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The White House has called the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act the, quote, “strongest measure protecting children from the dangers of smoking to date.”

But not everyone agrees. Several public health professionals have come out strongly against the new legislation. They argue that it was largely shaped by Philip Morris, now called Altria Group, the largest cigarette company in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Joel Nitzkin is the chair of the Tobacco Control Task Force of the American Association of Public Health Physicians, and he’s said the bill only, quote, “provides the appearance of the federal regulation of tobacco products while assuring the Philip Morris company of the ability to continue to market their current and currently proposed cigarette products with little interference from federal authorities, protection against future liability and protection from competition from other tobacco companies and from smokeless tobacco products.” Dr. Joel Nitzkin joins us now from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Nitzkin. Would you say this bill was written by Philip Morris?

DR. JOEL NITZKIN: I would say so. The bill was negotiated between Philip Morris and Tobacco-Free Kids, and it appears from the actual text of the bill that the Philip Morris people did their homework very well and knew exactly what they wanted, while those appointed from Tobacco-Free Kids to negotiate on behalf of the public health community really had no understanding of tobacco-related science, of how and why kids initiate tobacco use, or the steps that could be taken to stop them. So it resulted in a bill that gives the appearance of effective regulation, but not the substance. And with the exception of the graphic warnings, which were added in the Senate, not in the original House bill, every provision having to do with restriction of marketing of tobacco products falls into one of two categories: either it’s already in place as a result of the Master Settlement Agreement, or it has already been thrown out by the US Supreme Court.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why this alliance between the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Altria?

DR. JOEL NITZKIN: Well, it appears that a political decision was made that the only way they could get tobacco regulation through the Congress is if they could get Philip Morris, our nation’s largest and most dominant cigarette company, to endorse the bill. And they felt that without that endorsement, they could not get a bill through Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Nitzkin, explain exactly what the bill does, what it regulates, what it doesn’t regulate, and how exactly it helps the tobacco companies like Philip Morris. And talk especially about menthol cigarettes, which are not regulated here.

DR. JOEL NITZKIN: The bill covers a number of regulatory issues. First, it regulates the quality control of the manufacturing process and deals with issues having to do with contamination and what they call “filth.” Second, it requires all of the tobacco manufacturers to submit complete data to the FDA in terms of the ingredients of their cigarette products and their other tobacco products. And it requires that they do certain chemical analyses.

The bill does not restrict what they really put in, with the exception of certain candy flavors, which are basically no longer used in combustible tobacco products. These were old Lorillard products that at this point, as far as I know, are no longer on the market.

The one additive that really makes a difference is menthol, which is both a flavoring and a local anesthetic. And the purpose of menthol was to make cigarette smoking accessible to people who otherwise could not tolerate the harsh feel and taste of the smoke. About 80 percent of African American smokers smoke menthol cigarettes, as do a large number of non-African American smokers. But menthol was specifically included as allowable in the FDA legislation, because Philip Morris objected, saying if you eliminated menthol, that would eliminate 28 percent of our sales.

AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t they just introduce a new menthol version of Marlboro?

DR. JOEL NITZKIN: They just announced the introduction — I don’t think it’s on the market yet — of a newer version of Marlboro, which is both stronger in tobacco taste, as I understand it, and with a heavier concentration of menthol, in an attempt to gain market share from Lorillard and RJR, their two major competitors.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in terms of the efforts by those who are criticizing this legislation, what will be the next step that folks should take who would oppose the legislation, obviously, since it’s already passed?

DR. JOEL NITZKIN: There were strong objections from the African American community about the menthol exclusion. To satisfy those requests, Representative Waxman wrote in a provision saying that the Science Advisory Committee to the FDA would have to consider the menthol issue and issue a ruling on it.

The problem is, the guidelines that the committee is mandated to go by, written into the law, says they can only ban things on the basis that they increase the risk of cancer or some other serious disease, or they increase the addictiveness of the tobacco product. There is nothing in the law that would allow them to ban any ingredient that’s there for the purpose of attracting people to cigarettes who otherwise would not smoke.

So this basically bought off the black community. They then endorsed the bill with that provision. But by the guidelines written in the law, there is no way the FDA could ban menthol.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the main attempts here was to focus on the reduction of chemicals, as opposed to the issue of smoke itself. And some critics have claimed that it is really the smoke in cigarettes that causes the greatest damage. Is that true?

DR. JOEL NITZKIN: That is correct. The thrust of the bill is to make cigarette smoke — cigarettes safer by deleting certain hazardous chemicals in them. But there’s already good — pretty good research out there that shows if you eliminated all of the forty most prominent carcinogens in cigarette smoke, you would only reduce the risk of cancer by one or two percent. It’s become abundantly clear over the years that the problem is products of combustion, saying if you dried, shredded and rolled up cabbage or broccoli or even carrots, and people smoked as much of that stuff as they did cigarettes and inhaled it as deeply into their lungs at that very hot temperature, they would get the same risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases. So this business of making cigarette smoke safer by changing the ingredients has got no scientific basis whatever, and it’s another giveaway to Philip Morris.

To make things even worse, if I could continue for a moment, if somebody with a smokeless product wants to prove that their product is of lesser risk than cigarettes, they have to undergo basically impossible-to-do scientific studies. But if a cigarette company wants to market its cigarette as lower exposure, all they have to do is change the chemical composition by that small amount, and then they can advertise it as lower exposure without any scientific proof that it’s safer or less risky.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Joel Nitzkin, we’re going to have to leave it there. We thank you for being with us, chair of the Tobacco Control Task Force of the American Association of Public Health Physicians, speaking to us from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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