Monday, December 11, 2017

Big Tobacco Finally Telling the Truth About Its Products

By Sid Roberts, MD
Lufkin Radiation Oncologist

This blog post was originally published Dec. 10 at the Lufkin Daily News and on the Angelina Radiation Oncology Associates blog.

There was some big, big news recently you probably haven’t heard. After years of legal wrangling, the tobacco industry not only has been found guilty of fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering, but also has been ordered to run television and newspaper ads admitting the truth it fought so hard to suppress for decades.

Let’s go back to the beginning. It was more than 50 years ago, in 1964, when Luther Terry, the ninth surgeon general of the United States, issued a landmark report linking smoking to lung cancer and a host of other diseases. Since that time, Big Tobacco lied, deceived, and in every way engaged in a no-holds-barred battle against every attempt to regulate or curtail the sale of tobacco products. In the meantime, tens of millions of U.S. citizens have died prematurely from tobacco use.

In 1999, the Department of Justice took on Philip Morris and other tobacco giants under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, alleging the tobacco companies had engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to (1) mislead the public about the risks of smoking; (2) mislead the public about the danger of secondhand smoke; (3) misrepresent the addictiveness of nicotine; (4) manipulate the nicotine delivery of cigarettes; (5) deceptively market cigarettes characterized as “light” or “low-tar,” while knowing those cigarettes were at least as hazardous as full-flavored cigarettes; (6) target the youth market; and (7) not produce safer cigarettes.

Seven years later, in 2006, Federal District Court Judge Judy Kessler ruled that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies engaged in fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering — all to deliberately deceive the American public about the health risks of smoking and secondhand smoke. Her ruling noted that Big Tobacco had “marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.” Judge Kessler ordered that these companies admit their guilt publicly by running newspaper and television ads detailing their deception.

It took 11 more years — and a lengthy appeal process — for Big Tobacco to finally agree to any sort of public mea culpa about the health effects of smoking and its role in addicting hundreds of millions of people. Its watered-down admissions of guilt (known in legal parlance as “corrective statements”) will appear in about 50 newspapers and for a year on major television networks.

One startlingly honest (and obvious) fact that must be publicized is that Altria, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Philip Morris USA intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive.

Think about that. At a time when we rightly are criticizing pharmaceutical companies for how they market pain medications (which actually have a therapeutic use), we still give a pass to the companies that market the most addictive, useless, and deadly product around.

At least Big Tobacco now must admit publicly that “more people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined.”

Other statements you may see: “Many smokers switch to low-tar and light cigarettes rather than quitting because they think low-tar and light cigarettes are less harmful. They are not,” and “There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.” Sadly, we have known all of this for years; decades, even.

(One of the court-ordered ads warning of the dangers of tobacco.)

These ads started on Nov. 26, but I have yet to see one myself. I wonder if anyone who needs to see them will see them. Major newspapers and even television are not the way our vulnerable youth consume media these days. I am sure Big Tobacco is counting on that.

In the meantime, tobacco sales continue at a brisk pace. A Wall Street Journal article in April of this year noted that revenues for U.S. tobacco companies hit $117 billion in 2016, up from $78 billion in 2001, despite lawsuits, rising taxes, and declining smoking rates. Americans spent more than $90 billion on cigarettes in retail stores last year.

Stores that sell tobacco products today are complicit in the very deception that Big Tobacco is guilty of. The retail markup of tobacco products, according to the Wall Street Journal, is 17 percent, higher than that on groceries. No wonder grocery and convenience store chains put tobacco products front and center in their stores — or even out in front of their stores. Easy money. Dirty money.

The conservative/libertarian argument about supply and demand and “personal choice” is, pardon the pun, smoke and mirrors when people are knowingly addicted to the product in question. Cigarettes are not sugar water. I don’t mind companies making a profit — even obscene profits — as long as it isn’t by addicting us and killing us.

If nothing else comes from this mea culpa — these “corrective statements” — I hope tobacco and related products become so regulated and taxed that not only is it not possible to become addicted, but also it is too expensive for our youth to even consider starting. Nothing short of a world without tobacco will do. Perhaps that is a pipe dream, but our kids are worth it.

Dr. Sid Roberts is a radiation oncologist at the Temple Cancer Center in Lufkin. He can be reached at Previous columns may be found at 

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