Archive for the ‘Tobacco industry’ Category

Color-Coded Cancer Sticks

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

colorcodedcigsAt the headquarters of Reynolds American (parent of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) in North Carolina and the Virginia headquarters of Altria (parent of Philip Morris USA) time is apparently running backwards. The two companies just filed a lawsuit in DC federal court that reads like it was written in 1995, not 2015.

The target of the suit (15-CV-00544) is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which the companies apparently have forgotten was given authority by Congress in 2009 to regulate tobacco marketing, including the introduction of new products. That law came after years of vociferous opposition by Big Tobacco.

What has the companies up in arms is an FDA guidance document issued in March concerning review requirements for packaging changes. The agency takes the position that certain modifications in background color, logo and descriptors can be significant enough to trigger the stricter rules regarding new products.

Presenting themselves as victims of government overreach, the companies argue that their First Amendment rights are being violated: “FDA’s unlawful actions already have harmed Plaintiffs and threaten greater harms in the future by restricting Plaintiffs’ ability to modify their product labels without FDA preauthorization and by chilling and restricting protected speech.”

Although the case does not involve the federal warning labels that have been required for decades, it makes the puzzling argument that the FDA guidelines also violate the industry’s Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

While it is not unusual for big business to assert free speech rights to oppose regulations, this position is particularly galling when it comes from the tobacco industry. These are the companies, after all, that for decades concealed and denied the hazards of smoking, asserting it was their right to “believe” their products were non-addictive and did not cause cancer despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary. Their dishonest claims were made all the more fraudulent when documents came to light indicating that firms such as Brown & Williamson (now part of Reynolds American) knew about the dangers at least as far back as the early 1960s.

The issue of control over tobacco packaging was already fought, and the industry lost. In 2006 a federal court, finding that the industry had caused “an immeasurable amount of suffering,” ordered it stop labeling cigarettes with designations such as low tar, light and natural that gave the misleading impression that they were safe.

Tobacco companies began using techniques such as package coloring to get around the restriction. In 2010 a New York Times article on the practice quoted Prof. Gregory Connolly of the Harvard School of Public Health as saying the industry was “circumventing the law.” He added: “They’re using color coding to perpetuate one of the biggest public health myths into the next century.”

At the heart of the new case is the tension between public policies designed to discourage tobacco use and the continued existence of an industry which has to attract customers to survive. The industry’s lawsuit, with its assertion of free speech rights, proceeds from the assumption that producing and selling tobacco products is a legitimate activity. A more appropriate premise might be that tobacco is a public health menace that should be controlled as tightly as possible until the last smoker has kicked the habit and the companies can shut down.

Big Tobacco would do well to stop wrapping itself in the Bill of Rights and acknowledge that it is lucky it is still allowed to sell its deadly products at all.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheets on Reynolds American and Altria.

Smokeless Tobacco and Toothless Regulation

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

snusIt took decades for the federal government to overcome tobacco industry deception and adopt warning labels for cigarette packages in the 1960s. It took three more decades before the Food and Drug Administration was given the authority to regulate both the content of tobacco products and their marketing.

Now a branch of the industry is seeking to turn back the clock with regard to a specific product. Swedish Match is petitioning the FDA to drop the customary dire warning requirements for its smokeless tobacco called snus, which is sold as small packages that the user tucks between the lip and the gums.

Giving in to the Swedish Match proposal for a “light” warning that in effect says that snus is not as harmful as cigarettes would begin to differentiate the regulation of different types of tobacco products. It would be a coup not only for Swedish Match but potentially for makers of e-cigarettes, who also claim to be selling something safer than regular cancer sticks. Swedish Match, by the way, does not sell cigarettes, but it does produce cigars and chewing tobacco.

Yet perhaps the worst impact of granting Swedish Match’s request is that it would begin to restore credibility to an industry whose level of irresponsibility is perhaps unmatched in the world of business. Let’s recall the history.

Warnings about the harmful effects of smoking date back at least to the early 1950s, when Reader’s Digest published a widely discussed article on the subject. Rather than address the underlying issues, Big Tobacco started promoting filtered cigarettes, especially the R.J. Reynolds brand Winston, as a supposedly safer alternative. Reynolds also tried to give a healthier allure to its unfiltered Camels with an ad campaign claiming they were smoked by more doctors than any other brand. Lorillard promoted its Micronite filter as the greatest protection in cigarette history (much later it came out that the filter contained asbestos).

The same thing happened after the publication of the famous 1964 Surgeon General report on the dangers of smoking. While refusing to acknowledge the growing body of evidence, the industry stepped up its marketing efforts and introduced new products, such as Philip Morris’s low-tar Merit brand, that deceived consumers into thinking they were less deleterious.

Along with the warning labels, Congress banned cigarette advertising on radio and television, yet the tobacco companies used other channels. Reynolds egregiously sought to hook youngsters with its ads featuring a friendly cartoon character named Joe Camel.

Philip Morris, whose parent company is now called Altria, took another tack that was also in its own way pernicious. Once it became clear that federal regulation was coming, the company jumped on the bandwagon but slowed it down by pushing for oversight only on marketing to children. The well-funded argument that smoking was a legitimate adult activity slowed the push toward more comprehensive regulation and caused countless deaths.

Although the industry eventually had to accept such regulation in the United States, it is doing its best to thwart protections elsewhere, especially in smaller and poorer countries. Philip Morris International, which was spun off by Altria into a separate company, has tried to bully nations such as Uruguay and Togo into abandoning strong anti-smoking policies by threatening to drag them into expensive legal proceedings under the auspices of the World Trade Organization.

Swedish Match may protest that it has not been involved in many of these practices, yet it is a dominant player in the market for chewing tobacco, which like cigarettes is linked to cancer. It is also worth noting that the company was built by Ivar Kreuger, whose financial empire turned out to be a Ponzi scheme that collapsed during the Great Depression.

Whether or not there are significant differences between the health effects of cigarettes and snus, federal officials should do nothing to weaken a regulatory system that remains vitally important for public health.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Altria and Philip Morris International as well as a soon-to-be-posted one on Reynolds American.

Full Graphic Disclosure

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Forget Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. Federal regulators want people to think of disease, birth defects and death when they pick up a package of cigarettes. The Food and Drug Administration, implementing legislation passed by Congress last year, has just released three dozen proposed enhanced warning labels that manufacturers would have to print on each pack of cancer sticks.

In the place of the plain text warnings that have appeared on tobacco packaging for years, these labels would be much larger and much more visually striking. The proposals include, for example, photos of a smoker in an open coffin, a mother blowing cigarette smoke at her infant child, and a sickly cancer victim.

The main objective of the warnings is to encourage existing smokers to quit and the dissuade children from picking up the dangerous habit. But apart from consumer behavior modification, the labels can be seen as a form of disclosure—disclosure of the harmful effects of a product.

The need for bold messages about deleterious aspects of the things we buy is not limited to cigarettes. It might make sense to apply the FDA’s approach to a whole range of goods and services. For example:

  • SUV models shown to be prone to rollovers should come not just with a plain-text sticker showing miles per gallon, but also full-color photos of mangled vehicles with bleeding drivers and passengers.
  • Electric bills sent by utilities relying on coal-fired power plants should be required to include photographs of floods, droughts and other effects of catastrophic climate change.
  • The pumps at gas stations should be adorned with photographs of oil spills and refinery disasters.
  • A variety of products sold by Wal-Mart should have packaging containing images of the oppressive Chinese sweatshops in which they were produced.
  • Stores selling gold jewelry should display photographs showing the despoiled land around the cyanide-leaching facilities in which the precious metal is mined.
  • Producers of dangerous pharmaceuticals should be required not just to mention possible injurious side effects, which most people have tuned out, but to show images of actual victims.
  • Health insurance providers should have to send out pictures of policyholders who died because an expensive treatment was rejected by the company.
  • Perhaps manufacturers of the worst junk food should be required to air commercials with actors who are morbidly obese.
  • And, of course, gun sellers should have to hand out gory photos of victims of accidental discharges.

Given the exalted status of commercial free speech in this country, these ideas could never come to pass. Yet there is still a serious issue to address: How do we turn dry data about corporate harms into messages people pay attention to?

The objective, however, is not just to change consumer behavior but also that of producers. All disclosure is meant to highlight an activity that is subject to abuse and hopefully curb those abuses. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory is designed to get manufacturers to clean up their production processes – and has had a positive impact. Campaign contribution disclosure is meant discourage the big-money takeover of elections (there’s obviously been a lot less progress on that front, especially now that much corporate electoral spending can take place anonymously). Disclosure of executive compensation is supposed to check the relentless march toward lavish CEO salaries, bonuses and stock options (another less than rousing success).

The fact that disclosure does not immediately cure the problem it is meant to highlight does not undermine the case for transparency. It may simply mean that the form of the disclosure is not compelling enough. That’s the beauty of the FDA approach to cigarettes.

In replacing the misleading feel-good images that marketers have long sought to associate with even the most noxious products, the aggressive warning labels begin to force corporations to be honest about what they sell and consumers to come to grips with the true nature of much of what they consume. This form of anti-advertising may begin to liberate us from the illusions of our manufactured desires.

Regulating Murder

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

death-cigarettesDespite a long-running war on crime and billions of dollars spent each year on the criminal justice system, murders keep on happening. Instead of trying to end all homicides, perhaps the solution is to give up on abolition and simply regulate the practice: discourage the murder of children, put strong warning labels on guns, impose a tax on killers.

Ridiculous? Yes, but this is roughly what the federal government has just done with the tobacco industry, which legally ends far more lives each year than all the non-corporate murderers in the country combined.

The legislation just signed into law by President Obama — the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act — is billed as an aggressive move to bring the coffin nail industry under federal control for the first time. It starts off with what amounts to a 49-point indictment of tobacco products as a public health menace. Use of these products is called “inherently dangerous,” “addictive” and a “pediatric disease.” The tobacco industry, it is noted, still spends vast sums “to attract new users, retain current users, increase current consumption, and generate favorable long-term attitudes toward smoking and tobacco use.”

All of this is certainly true, but it seems odd to follow this denunciation with legislative language that imposes restrictions on the noxious industry but does not seek to put it out of business. In fact, the law can be seen as conferring some degree of legitimacy on tobacco producers. For example, the industry is given a statutory role in the Tobacco Products Scientific Advisory Committee, which has to be consulted before any new industry regulations are promulgated. Fortunately, the three seats on the committee given to tobacco manufacturers and growers are non-voting positions, but it is still unseemly — to put it mildly — to have representatives of such a notorious industry so involved in government oversight.

According to Corporate Accountability International, which has played a central role in promoting tobacco control policies: “Not only is the inclusion of the industry on this committee akin to letting the fox guard the henhouse, it runs counter to a treaty provision that obligates ratifying countries to safeguard their health policies against tobacco industry interference.”  Kathy Mulvey of CAI adds: “U.S. policymakers must now gird themselves for inevitable attempts by Big Tobacco to delay and thwart [the law].”

The ability of a notorious industry to go on influencing policy is reinforced by the fact that the law generally treats tobacco companies in a way that is not greatly different from other regulated corporations. The Food and Drug Administration is instructed to collect “user fees” from tobacco companies — as if they were pharmaceutical manufacturers seeking to get new drugs approved. Unless tobacco companies plan to “use” the FDA in some way, the fees should at least be called something different; perhaps reparations.

Another problem is that the law mentions that any restrictions on tobacco industry advertising and promotion must be consistent with the First Amendment. You can be sure that the industry will be screaming loudly that the law violates its free speech rights (granted by misguided court rulings). This is another drawback to regulation rather than criminalization.

While some players in the tobacco industry have ardently opposed federal regulation throughout the 15-year campaign to bring it about, some shrewd parties eventually realized that government intervention was inevitable and jumped on the bandwagon. Tobacco giant Philip Morris (now part of Altria) took this tack back in 2000, reaping years of improved p.r. and now a law that allows it and its competitors to continue selling their deadly wares with restrictions that are far from fatal to their profits. As much as corporations like to complain about regulation, sometimes it is their salvation.