Category Archives: Tobacco

How Big Tobacco got away with the Crime of the Century

It all began in 1994. Years of outrage over decades of Big Tobacco’s lies finally seemed to be coming to fruition. 1994 was the year it seemed like we finally turned a corner in the fight against Big Tobacco.

tobacco execs

The early 90s was pretty much the height of the lung cancer epidemic. Ever since then, lung cancer rates overall have been slowly dropping, especially among men. It was also the height of “Joe Camel,” a wildly successful marketing campaign by RJ Reynolds that appealed to beginning smokers (i.e., teenagers). What was really alarming people at the time was that the teenage smoking rate had been steadily decreasing until the mid- to late-80s. Then, shockingly, the teen smoking rate started going up, and going up markedly. Why? Joe Camel. Tobacco paying millions every year to insert “cool” smoking scenes in PG and PG-13 movies. They were finding a way to market to kids.

Congressman Harry Waxman held a famous series of Congressional hearings in 1994 in which the CEOs of the four major tobacco companies were subpoenaed to testify before Waxman’s committee about the cover-up and lies of Big Tobacco. All four CEOs — from RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lollilard — steadfastly refused to budge an inch under withering questioning from Waxman and other congressmen that they knew cigarettes were addictive and were killing people. They all four claimed they did not believe this.

harry waxman

The public was outraged. It was a major public relations debacle for Big Tobacco. Within months, a perjury investigation was initiated by the Department of Justice. All four CEOs were eventually fired. Ultimately, the Department of Justice claimed it didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute for perjury because the four CEOs testified under oath they believed tobacco did not addict people nor cause cancer. They had crafted their answers very carefully, obviously with help from attorneys. Because they had used the word believe, they could not be prosecuted for perjury.

Then came the Global Settlement Agreement, which came oh, so close to passing. This was a settlement proposed between several plaintiffs and Big Tobacco to right at least some of the wrongs committed by Big Tobacco over the past century. This included payment of $365 billion to the states for their Medicaid costs caused by smoking. FDA would be given regulation over tobacco products, warning labels would be strengthened and all class-actions suits against Big Tobacco would be nullified.

This required an act of Congress (because of the FDA involvement), and Congress failed to pass the bill, which was carried by Sen. John McCain.

Out of the flames of that failure, came the the Master Settlement Agreement, which was announced in 1998, I cheered. Finally, Big Tobacco was being brought to its knees. It wasn’t as good as the GSA, but it still sounded good. Big Tobacco would be crushed by a $280 billion out-of-court settlement with 46 states … (give or take several billion depending on your accounting).

I continued to cheer it for at least five years … until I started finding out all that had been lost. All in all, this agreement was an abject failure on most levels, explained very well in Alan Brandt’s “The Cigarette Century.”

The Master Settlement Agreement is to this day the biggest court settlement ever reached in the history of litigation. Big Tobacco (RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, Lollilard and Brown & Williamson), was sued by the state of Mississippi in the early 1990s to reimburse the state for its Medicaid expenses caused by all the health problems caused by smoking. 40 other states joined the suit. Famed Mississippi attorney Dickey Scruggs took over the plaintiffs’ case, leading an army of lawyers against Big Tobacco.

The case had an interesting basis in law. The tobacco industry was adding untold billions to the Medicaid expenses of states dealing with the near-epidemic of health problems caused by cigarettes — lung cancer, heart disease, lung disease, etc. In the 70s and 80s, lung cancer especially hit a crescendo as all those heavy smokers who started smoking in the 1950s and 1960s (when the smoking rate was the highest) started getting lung cancer. The industry knew damn well that its product was making people sick, yet continued to sell it … and this was actually adding to taxpayers’ tax burdens.

All this information came out in a series of documents leaked over a period of years from various personal injury lawsuits against the tobacco industry. While few of these lawsuits succeeded (Most jury decisions for the plaintiffs were either overturned by higher courts or the damages greatly reduced), one good thing did come out of all this litigation. Discovery.

Big Tobacco spent millions on advertising cigarettes in movies
Big Tobacco spent millions on advertising cigarettes in movies

Through the discovery process, reams and reams of documents were released to the plaintiffs, who in turn made them available to the public, proving that the tobacco industry had known since the early 1950s that tobacco was giving people heart disease and lung cancer and that nicotine was physically addictive and that “light” cigarettes were not safer than “regular.” Documents were released showing that Big Tobacco executives did their damnedest to keep this information covered up, and to fabricate studies attempting to disprove that cigarettes were killing people. More documents also proved that the industry had been shamelessly marketing to “new smokers,” which is a Big Tobacco euphemism for “teenage smokers.”

With this reams upon reams of evidence now out in the public forum, Big Tobacco was forced to settle, or face constant lawsuits and judgments. However, the high-priced Big Tobacco lawyers completely outmaneuvered the state attorneys general in the settlement.

The biggest failure of the agreement? It was suggested in the agreement that a certain amount of the $280 billion go toward tobacco education and cessation programs. Everyone assumed it would. Everyone thought it was a MANDATE. It was never MANDATED however.

Anti-smoking programs did receive a lot of funding from the settlement for a few years, but it didn’t take states very long to figure out that the word “mandate” wasn’t in the settlement anywhere. Before long, state legislatures started diverted that money to balancing their general funds. Money for tobacco education dried up. Lazy state legislators got an easy source of money to balance their budget without raising property taxes. It turned into a huge windfall. Not only that, but states started selling bonds with the intention that they would be paid off by future tobacco settlement funds.

Instead of stamping out smoking, states had become utterly dependent upon tobacco. It wasn’t in the states’ interest to cut smoking rates.

There was one last chance to really nail the tobacco industry. A RICO racketeering lawsuit filed against Big Tobacco in the federal court by the Justice Department under Bill Clinton. They had a damn good case. Tobacco executives had conspired for years to cover up the addictiveness and deadliness of their product. They had conspired for years to cover up the fact that they were marketing their product to kids. They had lied that “light” cigarettes were safer.

The feds won their case in 2006, sort of. A federal judge issued a scathing ruling convicting Big Tobacco of racketeering under the RICO statutes. An appeals court upheld this decison. However, shockingly, the courts did not impose any financial penalties, saying the RICO statute did not allow this. Some argue that the Justice Department under Bush did not pursue the case as aggressively as it had been pursued under Clinton, and this was part of the reason for the mixed ruling. The case is still being appealed as the government is seeking more of a monetary punishment against Big Tobacco.

So, tobacco executive lost their jobs for lying to Congress, were investigated for perjury, but avoided an indictment. Big Tobacco was convicted by a federal judge of RICO racketeering, and that conviction was upheld by an appeals court, but no executives went to jail, nor was the industry even forced to pay penalties. A huge civil settlement with the states has simply turned into a windfall for state government.

Big Tobacco murdered people for decades. And murder is not too strong of a word for it. They knew since the early 1950s, maybe even earlier, that they had a product that was addicting people and was killing people. And they continued to sell it and market it, and then they marketed it to kids. And they covered up and lied. For decades. It’s amazing to me that not one person has ever spent a day in jail for it. And people are rotting in prison in Texas and Florida for selling pot.

They got away with it. The final chapter of Dr. Allan Brandt’s book, “The Tobacco Century,” is “The Crime of the Century.”

They murdered roughly 100 million people worldwide between 1950 and 2010, and by “murder,” I mean they knew full well they were killing people with their addictive product.

If you want to look at the glass half-full, a few good things did come out of the 1998 MSA:

* Joe Camel was retired for good. Big Tobacco is forbidden from marketing to kids again (no ads with cartoon characters). They have attempted to get around this provision several times.

* Payments to movie studios for product placement were forbidden. Weirdly enough, smoking scenes in movies after 1998 actually went up, not down. Big Tobacco insists they have nothing to do with this. It’s probably Hollywood’s continued love affair with the cigarette dating back to Casablanca. However, pressure has been put on Hollywood to cut gratuitous smoking scenes out of PG and G movies. That pressure seems to be working.

* The cost of cigarettes went up. To pay for the $280 billion settlement, the industry as expected raised their prices. Along with a number of states jacking up their cigarette taxes, in some cases dramatically, the price of cigarettes has skyrocketed in the past 10 years, helping to drive down the smoking rate.

* Spurred partly by outrage that sprang from Waxman’s hearings, more and more states and cities have passed smoking bans. Not only do smoking bans help drive down the smoking rate (because a lot of casual smokers only smoke in bars, and therefore, it gives them a good excuse to quit), they also protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.

* The FDA was given regulatory authority over tobacco in 2009. The first thing the agency did was ban candy-flavoured cigarettes, which are popular with kids.

* The smoking rate and teen smoking rate have declined since 1998, but not dramatically. The smoking rate was around 24-25 percent in 1998, and today it’s pretty much stuck at about 20 percent. The smoking rate for teens is a little harder to pin down, because few teens are what you would call “regular smokers,” but the percentage of teens who were smoking dropped from 28 percent in 2000 to 17 percent in 2010. However, that drop has stalled the last few years, probably because of the cut in tobacco education funding.

* Class-action suits against Big Tobacco have been halted, but individual lawsuits are still being allowed. In Florida, a Supreme Court decision there in 2006 allowed thousands of individual lawsuits to go forward against Big Tobacco for lying about the safety of “light cigarattes,” etc. So far, juries have awarded hundreds of millions of dollars for plaintiffs, with hundreds more suits in the works. None of those judgments have been paid out, however, as Big Tobacco is appealing all the verdicts. the industry will be dealing with these lawsuits for at least the next decade, maybe longer.


CNBC’s Cigarette Wars — “It’s still a legal product”

cigarette wars What I was struck by in the CNBC documentary “Cigarette Wars” was how a pair of tobacco farmers, when asked, “how do you feel about growing a deadly product?” just kept repeating the mantra, “it’s still a legal product.”

“Not everyone dies from smoking,” Tobacco farmer Todd Clark says, then quickly adds for properity’s sake: “although there’s nothing positive about smoking in any way shape or form.” You could see in their eyes (well, not in this one clip because the guy is wearing shades), that they didn’t really buy their own mantra. You could see in their eyes this is what they told themselves every night … so they could sleep.

I wrote down at least six times two tobacco farmers told CNBC, “it’s still a legal product.” Six times. Cigarette Wars is an hour-long documentary that looks at the growing of tobacco, smoking bans, cigarette marketing, smoking in Hollywood, cigarette smuggling and cigarette exports. It interviews smoking ban proponents, tobacco farmers and ad execs (but no one from the tobacco industry would speak on camera … acting like the legalized Mafia they are.) I was struck most by two things … the tobacco farmers and Stanton Glantz calling Hollywood directors who insert smoking into their movies “stupid and corrupt.” (Hear that James Cameron? Stanton Glantz just called you stupid and corrupt.).

Here’s why farmers still grow tobacco, knowing full well it’s a deadly product, knowing full well that the only way they’ll be able to sleep at night is telling themselves “it’s still a legal product.” Because it makes a lot of money. According to tobacco farmer Todd Clark, who seemed like a nice enough guy, tobacco can make bring in $1,500 an acre, versus only $300 an acre for corn or other products. So, if you have a 1,000-acre farm … $1,500 an acre is a lot of money to turn away. How does Todd Clark sleep at night? “I don’t think about the end result,” he told CNBC. He admits he has to emotionally separate himself from the damage his cash crop causes to society. (More on him later.).

The documentary then moves on smoking bans. One of the biggest proponents of smoking bans in the country is anti-smoking zealot Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. His response to smoking bans putting farmers out of business? “There are very few growers out there … and a lot of America kids.” The documentary talked about cigarette smuggling … a bigger enterprise than I realized. One of the problems with state setting up their own cigarette taxes is the tax rate vary wildly from state to state. The taxes can be as low as 30 cents a pack in Virginia to $4.35 a pack in New York. So, it’s a lucrative business to buy up a shitload of cigarette cartons in Virginia, mark them up by $2 a pack and sell them in New York. Some of these schemes have helped fund the IRA and Hezbelloh.

I also enjoyed the segment on cigarettes and Hollywood as this is a personal fascination of mine. Tobacco companies paid movie studios millions of dollars between the 1970s and 1998, but as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the companies are prohibited from paying for cigarette product placement in films. Yet, from 1998 to 2008, smoking scenes in movies actually went up. Why? Stupidity, said Stanton Glantz. Glantz is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and has been on the frontlines of the fight against Big Tobacco for at least 30 years. He, and many others, are advocates for including an automatic R rating for inserting smoking scenes in movies. (I was dubious about this idea for a long time, but Hollywood has shown such an abject intransigence toward doing the right thing, that I now embrace the idea.) “Because directors are either stupid or corrupt,” Glantz said. The documentary specifically picks on James Cameron and “Avatar,” which had a completely gratuitous and pointless smoking scene with Sigourney Weaver (and it was a family film rated PG-13).

Glantz points out directors are just plain stupid to give a multi-billion dollar industry free advertising with getting a cent in return. One 21-year-old college student and heavy smoker pointed out that Hollywood taught him as a kid that “smoking is just badass.” There followed a montage of Hollywood stars smoking, including Irish douchebag Colin Farrell. 🙂 Stupid Irish idiot smoking The “Truth” anti-smoking campaign is next featured. I love this campaign, though it threatens to die from lack of funding every year, because it doesn’t try to tell kids smoking is bad for them. A “Truth” spokeperson acknowledges that often the best way to get kids to do something is to tell them it’s bad for them. “Our goal to to disrupt their (Big Tobacco’s) business model.” Instead, “Truth” focuses on trying to get through to kids that corporations are manipulating them and turning them into their slaves (though nicotine addiction). Truth has been a wildly successful program despite their tiny budget. Even though they can no longer advertise on TV or radio, tobacco companies still spend more on marketing every day than Truth spends in an entire year.

The documentary moves on to global tobacco use. We can fight the tobacco industry all we want, but they are simply going to export their epidemic overseas. While the smoking rate in the U.S. is less than half of what it was 50 years ago, smoking is thriving and even on the increase in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. They are 320 million smokers in China, compared to 55 million in America. That’s a big tempting market for American tobacco companies (they mostly smoke Asian tobacco still in China, but believe me, Big Tobacco is trying to horn in … and China is aware of it, too. They aren’t stupid.)

I did like how the documentary ended. There seems to be hope for tobacco farmer Todd Clark. He’s diversified his farm into other products, such as cattle, chickens, other crops, because tobacco appears to be on the decline. He admitted that the “reality has sunken in more than it ever has before” that the days of American tobacco are on the wane, and that Clark is putting more energy into “having to do other things (grow other crops.).” “I’m excited about those other things,” Clark said.


And the winner of the 2011 Hackadamy Award? …. Inception!

The Hackademy Awards is a clever little PR trick done by a group called to bring attention to the level of smoking in movies marketed to kids and teens.

One of the things that absolutely drives many of us anti-smoking advocates BATSHIT crazy is how Hollywood continues, in this day and age, evoke “cool” images of smoking … even though Big Tobacco supposedly stopped paying for product placement in movies 13 years ago. If you really pay attention, you will notice an absolute shitload of smoking in PG and PG-13 movies made after 1998 … and much of the time, that smoking is portrayed as “cool.” It’s fucking asinine and pisses me off. You can do whatever you want in an R-rated movie as far as I’m concerned, but if you can’t say “Fuck” twice in a movie and keep your PG-13 rating, then you shouldn’t be able to smoke in a PG-13 movie, either. Remember those ratings are really about marketing campaigns. They have nothing to do with freedom of speech or the first amendment or censorship. Some of us have fought long and hard to get automatic R ratings in movies for cigarette smoking, with limited success. The biggest problem is apparently a lot of Hollywood actors and directors (such as James Cameron) are apparently still stuck in the “Casablanca” mindset that smoking is still cool. Well, Humphrey Bogart died at 57 of esophagal cancer and that’s not so cool, is it?

Anyway, every year, this group picks their Hackademy winners and losers. The big winner for 2011 is “Inception.” (Interestingly, the group behind the Hackademy Awards hasn’t updated its website since 2010, but they did just put out a press release for what it’s worth.)

What’s interesting about this is Inception stars Leonardo DiCaprio, who is a notorious three-pack-a-day chain smoker and smokes like a chimney in countless movies. In several interviews, he claims he has tried to quit, but had to stop using nicotine patches because they were giving him nightmares. Supposedly, he is now smoking cigars now rather than cigarettes. As crazy as it sounds, cigars are actually less carcinogenic than cigarettes.

Lance Armstrong campaigns for higher cigarette tax

Anti-smoking and anti-cancer advocate Lance Armstrong now appears to be moving full-time into cancer advocacy.

A couple of years ago, Lance campaigned pretty strongly for a smoking ban in Texas. He didn’t win that round, but since he started speaking out, several large cities in Texas have imposed smoking bans, in particular Houston and Dallas.

Now, Lance is campaigning in California for a $1 a pack tax in that state which would be directed specifically toward cancer research. California has a really low cigarette tax (surprisingly) at 87 cents a pack, which is considerably below the national average of about $1.50 a pack. California a few years ago also voted down a ballot initiative that would’ve raised its cigarette tax — after Big Tobacco spent tens of millions defeating it. Big Tobacco will spend a lot of money fighting this initiative, which should be placed on the ballot sometime in 2012. Why? Studies show that a $1 a pack increase will drive the smoking rate down roughly 10 percent. There’s roughly 4 million smokers in California. Big Tobacco is looking at losing 400,000 customers, spending roughly $1,000 to $2,000 a year on cigarettes, if this passes. It’s in Big Tobacco’s interests to spend money to fight the measure.

The measure would raise about $850 million a year. Hopefully, with the money directed specifically toward cancer research, California voters will do the right thing … and NOT listen to the propaganda that will be coming from Big Tobacco.

$10 billion judgment against Phillip Morris revived!

A 2003 court case in Illinois awarded a $10 billion judgment against Phillip Morris for lying about the safety of its “low-tar” cigarettes. That decision got overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2006, but now an appeals court has breathed life back into the case by ruling that a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision now changes the playing field legally.

It’s complicated, and I’m not sure I’m going to explain it 100 percent correctly, but here’s the gist of it. The Illinois Supreme Court had found that the descriptive terms for the cigarettes were permitted by the Federal Trade Commission and thus did not break state law. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept the plaintiffs’ appeal.

However, though in a 2008 decision regarding a lawsuit in Maine, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an “identical” Philip Morris defense, so plaintiffs’ lawyers successfully argued that the Illinois case should be looked again in light of that ruling.

U.S. Senators getting involved in trying to ban chewing tobacco in MLB

Well, this usually not a good thing when the U.S. Senate butts (hah, pun on a tobacco site) into something, but maybe this isn’t a bad thing, either.

Dick Durbin of Illinois and Frank Lautenburg of New Jersey both wrote Major League Baseball this week urging the league and the players’ union to work together to ban chewing tobacco in baseball. I wrote a few weeks ago about the effort to ban the use of chewing tobacco in MLB stadiums. Before you all start screaming, “Fascist” one me, it’s already banned in Minor League Baseball and has been for several years now. Last I checked, the Earth is still revolving around the Sun.

They point out that use of chewing tobacco has increased among high school boys by 36 percent since 2003:

The senators wrote:

“The use of smokeless tobacco by baseball players undermines the positive image of the sport and sends a dangerous message to young fans, who may be influenced by the players they look up to as role models.”

Hey, MLBers, kids really do copy more than just your batting stances. Seriously.

As recently as 1988, 39 percent of MLB players chewed tobacco (that number has to be lower now). There is some talk that a ban on chew in stadiums will be part of baseball’s next collective bargaining agreement.

Probably, I would’ve smirked at this a few years ago, a couple of U.S. Senators butting into a baseball issue, but then I remember everyone scoffed at Congress for holding hearings on steroids in baseball, and while it seemed like pretty pathetic empty theater at the time, those hearings actually ended up drawing a hell of a lot of attention toward steroids in baseball.

Oh, this makes me so angry — Montana GOP trying to eliminate anti-tobacco programs


Fucking batshit insane Montana Republicans on a budget subcommittee yesterday voted to gut the state’s highly successful anti-tobacco programs. Why? This is a lousy $15 million, a pittance in the state budget, and the programs have been noncontroversial and extremely successful. Why? Because Republicans are FUCKING ASSHATS. Montana’s teen smoking rate has dropped dramatically the last 10 years. Why? This highly successful program is one big reason why.

Like one Democrat said, “It seems to me at this point there are just random acts of cuts, when there is no reason to do this. We heard all the talk the other day about prevention, and what it’s done to prevent problems in Montana. This makes no sense. Here we go again.”

That came from Rep. Trudi Schmidt, D-Great Falls.

I think Republicans are doing this because they see these kinds of programs as nothing but “Nanny State Socialism.” It pisses me off. However, they have no problem with Nanny State Socialist laws telling women what they can and cannot do with their own bodies.

The one good news is, they can’t cut these funds without screwing with state law. These monies are designated specifically for anti-tobacco programs BY STATE LAW, which means they can’t SIMPLY BE CUT. You have to rewrite law. And we still have a sane Democratic governor with a veto pen.

Kentucky and Tennessee tobacco growing

Remember I wrote a couple days about about Bowling Green, Kentucky’s, smoking ban? A pair of interesting articles about Kentucky and Tennessee’s relationship with tobacco. Kentucky was 20 years ago the No. 1 tobacco-producing state in the nation. It also has historically been No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation for smoking rates, and it also leads the nation in highest lung cancer rate (76 per 100,000 people each year, versus 52 per 100,000 people in the U.S. as a whole.). In 1990, the tobacco growing industry in Kentucky alone generated $900 million in revenue. By 2009, that figure had dropped to $380 million, less than one-half.

And yet, fewer places in Kentucky are allowing smoking. The two biggest cities — Louisville and Lexington, have banned smoking, and Bowling Green, the third biggest city, joined them last week. Several other cities such as Frankfort and Paducah also ban smoking. I think it’s amazing anywhere in Kentucky bans smoking when tobacco is so entrenched in the state (By comparison, few major cities in Alabama have banned smoking).

In adjacent Tennessee, the bottom has dropped out the cigarette tobacco business, so how have farmers adjusted. Unfortunately, many of them have simply switched to growing chewing tobacco, which is increasing in use (partly because of smoking bans). Instead of switching to corn or wheat, they’re not buying a clue and switching to another deadly, addictive product. That’s a bummer … and disappointing. Acreage in Tennessee and Kentucky devoted to cigarette tobacco has decreased 40 percent in recent years, but acreage devoted to chewing tobacco has increased 22 percent.

C’mon farmers. Plow that shit under. Grow something else. Soybeans. Canola. Dope. Anything. Anything but tobacco.

Bowling Green, heart of tobacco country, going smokefree

Interesting. Last week, Bowling Green, Kentucky, right smack dab in the middle of smoking country went smokefree. Bowling Green is surrounded by tobacco farms. In 1987, tobacco was the No. 1 cash crop in Kentucky. A city surrounded by tobacco farms going smokefree, almost as weird as Virginia (home of RJ Reynolds) and North Carolina (home of Altria) going smokefree.

This story looks at concerns by business owners and the local VFW hall over the new law. But, I love this one quote from an old-timer regular at a Bowling Green bar called the Little Brown Jug. “People will come in,” he said. “This is our home.”

That’s usually what happens. People keep coming in. I know at the diviest of the dive bars in our town, the old-timers still go in to their second home. Their lives haven’t really been affected.

The other funny thing is there is a really aggressive anti-smoking ban zealot who posts all over the Internet (I hadn’t heard anything about this guy for at least 18 months, but then he showed up on some site I posted on a couple of days ago. I then did a quick Google and found out he’s been posting his spam like crazy all over the Internet on any and all smoking ban stories. He’s just obsessed.), who lives near Bowling Green. It’s gotta really chap his hide that the nearest city is smokefree!