Jun. 11 2003
Washington, D.C. — A story in today's issue of The Washington Post exposes Philip Morris' continuing efforts to use huge political contributions to buy bad public policy that protects the company's bottom line rather than the public health. In this case, the story details the efforts of U.S. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) to insert a provision in a bill creating the Department of Homeland Security that would enhance Philip Morris' profits by reducing the sale of counterfeit cigarettes. According to the story, Federal Election Commission records show Philip Morris has contributed more than $150,000 to political committees associated with Rep. Blunt since 2001. While the company's latest gambit was unsuccessful, it shows the tremendous influence of tobacco industry political contributions. In October 2001, the tobacco industry had similarly sought to include a provision in anti-terrorism legislation, commonly known as the Patriot Act, that would have restricted the ability of foreign governments to bring smuggling-related lawsuits against U.S. tobacco companies. It is outrageous that the tobacco industry has repeatedly sought to advance its harmful interests under the cover of legislation intended to protect the nation's security.
Philip Morris, the nation's largest tobacco company, has been particularly aggressive in seeking to exercise political influence to pass legislation harmful to public health. Philip Morris has made more than $10.9 million in political contributions at the federal level since 1997, with $8.6 million, or 78 percent, of its contributions going to the Republican Party, making it one the party's largest political contributors. In return, Philip Morris wants Congress to pass legislation concerning counterfeit cigarettes and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of tobacco products that protect its profits, but not the public health. Congress should reject the Philip Morris approach to these issues and pass legislation supported by the public health community instead.
The problem of contraband and Internet sales of tobacco products is a serious one that Congress should address. But the approach advocated by Philip Morris and Rep. Blunt is narrowly written to protect only Philip Morris' commercial interests and not the broader public health or state government interests involved.
Internet and contraband sales of tobacco products pose several problems. They undermine state efforts to reduce tobacco use by increasing tobacco taxes, cost states much-needed revenue by encouraging tax evasion, and, in the case of Internet sales, make it easier for kids to buy tobacco products. The Philip Morris-backed bill is aimed at stopping the illegal sales of counterfeit cigarettes, which has been eroding Philip Morris' profits (Philip Morris' Marlboro is the most frequently counterfeited brand). But this bill falls woefully short by failing to require that Internet sellers use readily available technology to verify the identity and age of their customers in order to reduce Internet tobacco sales to kids. It fails to give states the law enforcement and tax collection tools they need to fight Internet-based evasion of tobacco taxes. It also does not include anti-smuggling provisions that would prevent and reduce cigarette smuggling of non-counterfeit brands, which is a much larger problem than smuggling of counterfeit brands (but also happens to increase Philip Morris' sales and profits). We expect bipartisan legislation to be introduced in the near future that will achieve these goals. This bill, and not the Philip Morris-backed bill, deserves Congressional support.
Philip Morris also wants Congress to pass ineffective legislation granting the FDA authority over tobacco products because it wants the FDA's stamp of approval for the so-called "reduced risk" products it plans to market. Again, Philip Morris is promoting legislation that protects its bottom line, but not the public health. Among other things, the Philip Morris approach would not give the FDA adequate authority to encourage the development of truly less hazardous tobacco products or to ensure that such products are not marketed to discourage current tobacco users from quitting or to recruit new users. The Philip Morris-backed bill also does not give the FDA adequate authority to restrict marketing that impacts children; to require changes in tobacco products to make them less harmful even when technology exists to do so; or to prohibit terms such as "light" and "low-tar" that mislead consumers about the risks of cigarettes labeled as such.
In both cases, Philip Morris gives the appearance of supporting solutions to important public health problems, when the company's real goal is to protect its profits and not public health. Congress should not allow Philip Morris to buy these harmful goals with millions in campaign contributions.
(More information on tobacco industry political contributions can be found at http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/reports/contributions/)