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From Pence to Price: How Big Tobacco Gained Massive Influence Under Trump, Plans to Expand in Africa

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From Vice President Mike Pence to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a new Guardian report exposes how tobacco companies have gained unprecedented influence in Washington since the Trump administration came to power. Politicians with deep ties to the tobacco industry now head the U.S. Health Department, the top attorney’s office and the Senate, even as tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death. The series also looks at how U.S. and British tobacco giants are trying to expand their global market, especially across Africa. We are joined by Jessica Glenza, health journalist for The Guardian.

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a stunning new investigation by The Guardian that reveals how tobacco companies have gained unprecedented influence in Washington since the Trump administration came to power. The Guardian reports politicians with deep ties to the tobacco industry now head the U.S. Health Department, the top attorney’s office and the Senate, even as tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death. Vice President Mike Pence has reportedly received $39,000 in donations from tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds and more than $60,000 from the tobacco company-aligned National Association of Convenience Stores, both among his top donors. Trump’s nominee for solicitor general, Noel Francisco, reportedly represented both R.J. Reynolds and its parent company, Reynolds American Inc. And Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price reportedly owned at least $37,000 in shares in Philip Morris International and Altria.

AMY GOODMAN: The Guardian series also looks at how U.S. and British tobacco giants are trying to expand their global market, especially across Africa. According to The Guardian, British American Tobacco, or BAT, and others have resorted to legal intimidation when Uganda and Kenya attempted to pass health warnings and regulations on tobacco products sold within their countries. This is a clip from a video accompanying the Guardian report.

NARRATOR: Tobacco is a deadly business. Cigarettes kill half of those who smoke. But this is not a story of an industry in decline. The tobacco industry is thriving. There are now an estimated 77 million smokers in Africa, and those numbers are predicted to soar. But African governments are not standing by. Many are bringing in regulations, like those that have saved millions of lives in the West. BAT and other multinational tobacco firms don’t seem to like that, and they’re fighting in the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Reuters recently obtained documents revealing Philip Morris’s campaign to subvert the world’s anti-smoking treaty. Reuters reviewed internal emails in which Philip Morris executives took credit for watering down anti-smoking measures at the biennial meeting of the tobacco control treaty. All this comes as a proposed $49 billion merger between Reynolds and British American Tobacco is currently underway.

Well, we’re joined right now by Jessica Glenza, health journalist for The Guardian, one of the lead reporters on this new series, “Tobacco: A Deadly business.”

Jessica, welcome to Democracy Now!

JESSICA GLENZA: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the tobacco industry and its connections to the Trump administration and members of the Cabinet.

JESSICA GLENZA: Sure. So, I think—I always like to start off with something that really surprised me, which was the amount of lobbying that’s going on in D.C. and how the numbers, the dollar figures, don’t actually reflect the influence that these companies have. As a lot of people may know, there isn’t as much lobbying in D.C. by tobacco companies as there used to be. That’s reduced. But it’d be unfair to say that the amount of influence has reduced. As some people may know, Mike Pence, for example, infamously said in 2001 that smoking doesn’t kill. He also, as you mentioned, received—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, he said it doesn’t kill?

JESSICA GLENZA: He literally said that smoking doesn’t kill. He put out a press release that said smoking, quote, “doesn’t kill.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go more into that, in 2001, Pence writing, quote, “Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill. … A government big enough to go after smokers is big enough to go after you,” he wrote. So, you got that 2001 email in which tobacco lobbyists discuss donating to Pence, the email saying, in part, “After my meeting with Mike Pence, I’d recommend that we cut him a check in the near future.”

JESSICA GLENZA: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this.

JESSICA GLENZA: And that email was sent two months after the press release that you just referenced. So, Mike Pence says smoking doesn’t kill, and two months later tobacco lobbyists say, “We budgeted $3,000 to give to Mike Pence, and I think that we should cut him a check for $2,000 right now. We’ve already given him $500.” So, they’re talking about what increments of cash do they give Mike Pence for his support of or his perceived support of the tobacco industry. He also owned, as part of a family business, a chain of 210 convenience stores called Tobacco Road.

And he’s not the only person in the administration who has these kind of ties. The health secretary, Tom Price, also has similar ties. As you mentioned, he owned $37,000 worth of tobacco stock. He earned a similar amount in donations from tobacco companies. And he voted against important laws that were passed in 2009 that increased the price of cigarettes and that provided over—regulatory oversight to the FDA for tobacco products. That 62-cent tobacco tax hike, by the way, was to pay for healthcare for impoverished children. So, Tom Price voted against it, saying that a 62-cent tobacco tax hike was a blow to working families. Meanwhile, that money went straight to pay for impoverished children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask you, because your series focuses a lot on the growth area of tobacco in the world, which is obviously the Third World. And increasingly, as American companies have increasingly had their sales from the Third World, polluting industries have increasingly moved to the Third World, talk about tobacco’s role in Africa and in the developing world.

JESSICA GLENZA: Sure. So, as you mentioned in the lead-up, tobacco companies, and predominantly the big five tobacco companies, but here we’re sort of focusing on Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, have created a campaign to try to push regulation of this treaty in a way that’s favorable for them. As you mentioned, the Reuters investigation found that Philip Morris International had created a campaign to get administration of this treaty pushed toward finance and tax ministers and away from health ministers, people who might be more interested in getting these kind of health regulations put in place. Our investigation found that, in Africa, tobacco companies and aligned associations were sending letters to governments saying, “We noticed that you proposed this set of smoking regulations. And, by the way, we think it contravenes your constitution, and we think it could be against world trade treaties.” So, it follows a pattern that tobacco companies have set out over many, many years of trying to delay implementation of life-saving regulation.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about this. According to your report, Africa had the lowest number of tobacco deaths among World Health Organization regions in 2010. The World Health Organization predicts nearly half the population of Congo-Brazzaville will smoke by 2025, and smoking rates will increase in 17 other countries. You also look at Kenya as a case study.

JESSICA GLENZA: Mm-hmm, right. In Kenya, the Supreme Court is hearing right now arguments between the tobacco company and the government. The government wants to pass a set of anti-tobacco regulations. Tobacco companies are fighting that. And the reason that’s important is because, especially in developing nations, you have a limited budget in which to fight these kinds of fights, in which to get these sorts of regulations enacted. So, it’s a very closely watched case on the continent. Other governments are watching it. And if, for example, the Kenyan government failed, it could act as a deterrent for other governments to enact these sort of regulations, because they know that it will be pricey, and potentially it won’t pay off, it won’t protect their citizens the way that it is intended to.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in other words, the regulations that we, here in the United States, take for granted, like warning signs on packs of tobacco or restrictions against selling to minors, these are the kinds of things that tobacco companies are doing here, but while they are fighting in every one of these other countries?

JESSICA GLENZA: Well, I would argue they’re fighting it here, as well. So, it was interesting, what you said at the beginning is that, you know, “How are they sort of increasing their hold on developing nations?” And I think that the broader answer is, they’re increasing their hold on impoverished populations, here in the United States and in developing countries.

So, to me, one of the best examples is West Virginia. Now, everybody knows that smoking is the number one leading preventable cause of death, right? It’s something that we say a lot and we’ve heard over many decades. But I think that it’s the—it’s the figures that really are shocking. So, if you only have a GED, a high school equivalency degree, you’re almost 10 times more likely to smoke than someone who has a graduate degree. Same goes for someone who makes less money, people who live in rural areas. And why I bring up West Virginia is because, as we all talk about the opioid epidemic on a regular basis, many people know that West Virginia is the heart of that epidemic. So, the way public health officials measure impact, impacts on populations, is through a rate per 100,000, right? So, 41 people overdose for every 100,000 who live in West Virginia every year. That’s how they measure that rate. Now, if you look at a southwestern county in West Virginia, an impoverished place, lung and throat cancer alone kill 123 people per 100,000. That’s triple the rate of the opioid epidemic.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the members of the Trump administration. Can you talk about Noel Francisco, the nominee to be the solicitor general of U.S. in the Trump administration, reportedly represented both R.J. Reynolds and its parent company, Reynolds American Inc.?

JESSICA GLENZA: Sure. Noel Francisco was a very high-profile partner at Jones Day, the same law firm that represented the Trump campaign. So, Noel Francisco has been nominated for solicitor general, the top attorney in the United States. Noel Francisco also represented R.J. Reynolds in a challenge to the Federal Drug Administration’s graphic warnings on cigarette packs.

So, any American who’s been to the convenience store in the last couple days will know that it’s still the same U.S. surgeon general warning on every pack of cigarettes, which is sort of amazing given that every other Western nation has graphic warnings now. We don’t in the United States. And part of the reason for that hang-up is because Noel Francisco successfully argued in an appeals court that the graphic warnings proposed by the Food and Drug Administration shouldn’t have a quit line on them, 1-800-QUIT-NOW. The reason that he argued that is because he said, “Well, that amounts to government advocacy, and we’re not going to put that on our pack of cigarettes.” And ever since then, the FDA has been saying, “Well, we’re at the drawing board, coming up with a new graphic warning system.” That still hasn’t happened several years later, and public health advocates are now suing the FDA to force their hand. So, that’s something that we’re going to look for the outcome of.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about Tom Price. In January, health and human services nominee Tom Price was questioned by Minnesota Senator Al Franken about his tobacco stock holdings. This is a clip of what he said.

SEN. AL FRANKEN: How do you square reaping personal financial gain from the sales of an addictive product that kills millions of Americans every decade with also voting against measures to reduce the death toll inflicted by tobacco?

REP. TOM PRICE: Well, it’s an interesting question, Senator, and it’s a curious observation. I have no idea what stocks I held in the '90s or the 2000s or even now. All of these decisions, for all of us, I suspect, are through mutual funds and through—through pension plans. I would bet, and I don't want—well, I ought not bet here. I would suspect that in your pension plan, that there are—there are components of that that are held that may have something to do, in some time in your history, with tobacco. So—

SEN. AL FRANKEN: You know, I find it very hard to believe that you did not know that you had tobacco stocks.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to Price’s equivocation on the question?

JESSICA GLENZA: Well, I’ve always thought that was a bit of a bizarre answer from Tom Price, especially given that he talks about how his father was a Lucky—I don’t know if that played in the clip, but how his father was a Lucky Strike smoker, and his father was killed by those cigarettes. So, to me, I mean, Tom Price’s record speaks for itself. He voted against a 62-cent tobacco tax hike. He voted against giving the authority to the FDA to regulate cigarettes. And at the same time, he called that a blow to working families. And that is difficult to reckon if you actually want to control tobacco use.

AMY GOODMAN: And we have less than a minute, but the FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb?

JESSICA GLENZA: Sure. Scott Gottlieb started his career at an investment bank, where he’s helped raise money for an e-cigarette company called Kure—Kure with a K. And he also, in some editorials, when he was working as a pundit, said that he thought e-cigarettes might be a good alternative to smokers. And that is something that is really up for debate, and the research is still coming in on that. So, Scott Gottlieb is now in charge of those e-cigarette regulations, and we’ll have to wait and see what he does to further or hinder them.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does the Trump administration compare to the Obama administration?

JESSICA GLENZA: Well, the Obama administration signed the 2009 law to give Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco. So, I would say that, to this point, there have been absolutely no legislative wins for health advocates from the Trump administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us, Jessica Glenza, health reporter for The Guardian. We’ll link to your series, “Tobacco: A Deadly Business.”

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