Follow the Money

kids smokingThe fate of a bill before the U.S. Senate's health committee is a perfect example of our broken democracy. The bipartisan "Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act" would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the advertising, content, and sale of tobacco. Read all about it here. An analysis of politicians who support the bill and those who oppose it reveals much about the squalid system of campaign finance in America. More about that later.

Let me say right up front that I believe the tobacco industry has much to answer for. When used correctly, their product is consistently lethal and the government's Center for Disease Control has the grim statistics to prove it. Their tip sheet has excellent up to date information, but the most important is:

"Annually 1 in 5 United States deaths, or 438,000, are caused by tobacco use (more than murder, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicide, illegal drug use, or HIV infection; combined").

I don't begrudge an adult's right to smoke in isolation (If isolation sounds too extreme to you, then read the National Cancer Institute's report on secondhand smoke.) However, can't we at least agree that we should do everything we can to keep this deadly habit-forming product away from kids? Apparently we cannot agree. Consider: Opponents of the bill are concerned with the tobacco industry's ability to "develop new markets" ( that means you, kids), "attract female smokers" (using fruit- or candy-flavored cigarettes adorned with a fuchsia colored camel), and manipulate nicotine levels (because lower levels could hurt consumer "acceptance" of products, lowering sales).

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is once again spearheading the opposition against regulation of the tobacco industry. He boasts that he can "eat up 5 weeks of the Senate's legislative business" with procedural games to block the bill. You have to admire Burr's perseverance, if not his priorities. He is joined in opposition by Senator Elizabeth Dole and NC Reps. Mike McIntyre, Robin Hayes, and Virginia Foxx.

Unsurprisingly, if you follow the money of tobacco industry contributions to Congress (courtesy of The Center For Responsive Politics) you will find Senator Burr's name at the very top. In his election in 2004 he received more than twice as much money as any other candidate for Congress. Similarly, in 2002 Sen. Dole was number three, and in 2006 Reps. Hayes, McIntyre, and Foxx were numbers 10, 13, and 19 respectively.

To a person each of these politicians would tell you their votes are not for sale. They are pro-business, or pro-smokers rights, or pro-family farmers, or pro-tobacco jobs. Possibly, but it seems much more likely that this is about people making money (or receiving contributions) at the expense of someone's health. As tobacco company internal memos have confirmed, that someone is usually a teenager between the ages of 13-17, the age when most smokers started. This may sound harsh, and it's only my personal opinion, but I don't care how many people are employed by R. J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem, or on tobacco farms or in tobacco warehouses down East. The Surgeon General‘s report linking smoking and cancer was published in 1964. Think how many millions of lives would have been saved if we had put reasonable restraints in place at that time. Well, now is the time.

Never forget this simple fact: the tobacco industry wants to convince your children to use their lethal product. This is not about persuading the shop foreman to switch from Marlboro to Camels. Implementing this bill would make it only slightly harder to recruit new smokers, but could save many lives. North Carolinians should urge our legislators to support our health, and protect our children, by supporting this bill.

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