The Common Good
January 2004

It's the Money

by Rick Bernardo | January 2004

After the Big Tobacco suits, what next?

When states sued tobacco companies, they said, "It’s not the money, it’s about our children." Now, it’s the money.

The main character in J. D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye pictured thousands of kids playing in a field atop "some crazy cliff," liable to tumble off unless he caught them. Today, folks make money from kids going over the edge. For instance, if 3,000 American children per day don’t start smoking, tobacco companies’ domestic market will suffer. Since, according to numerous studies, nicotine is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, this "crazy cliff" event is rigged: One in three teens who buy that ticket ultimately die from it, paying for it the whole way down.

In the 1990s, states sued Big Tobacco and settled for a tidy $254 billion. You’d think the catcher in the rye could relax; instead he’s being hung out to dry. The portion of total state tobacco revenues (including settlements and taxes) used toward smoking prevention is a shameful 3 percent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures—nowhere near federal guidelines—and continuing to nosedive.

Prevention programs are a proven vaccination against generations of disease and death. The evidence is in, but the vaccination is being withheld—billions of dollars diverted. Call it missed historic opportunity or sin of omission. Dr. Karen Lebacqz, an ethicist at the Pacific School of Religion, calls the siphoning off "a breach of the public trust."

Mississippi’s Mike Moore, the first attorney general to sue tobacco companies, says it’s as if "Alaska’s governor and legislature recovered money from Exxon to ‘clean up the mess,’ then decided they needed new roads and just left the mess out there...." (It’s interesting that the Valdez spill, roads, and tobacco all have to do with depositing tar.)

Health officials offer little encouragement. For instance, as Minnesota terminated its widely hailed youth-led anti-smoking program, its health commissioner couldn’t say if teen smoking rates would rise, telling the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "I won’t say they will—they may." Others, however, don’t hesitate. "Smoking rates go up and people are going to die" when states reduce this funding, says S.C. Carthen, president of National Black Clergy for Substance Abuse Prevention.

AH, YES: WHAT about state deficits? Even if you accept the cold calculus that sacrifices kids for a no-new-taxes pledge, consider that each tobacco-prevention dollar can yield three dollars in health savings. As the United States hemorrhages medical costs—more than $75 billion per year due to tobacco—we’re removing what stanches that bleeding. Who benefits? Big Tobacco does, along with a cast of policymakers in their bed of campaign finance and influence.

States’ tobacco money "has become their go-to slush fund," Sen. John McCain told The Wall Street Journal. Thus another chapter is added to our national saga going back to tobacco plantations where, before cotton, slavery’s roots first took hold in that not-so-great white way of doing business on other people’s backs. Not to mention that Big Tobacco refines and exports this modus operandi worldwide.

Former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who says these issues come "with moral, ethical, and spiritual underpinnings," has called Big Tobacco a social "malignancy." Dr. Raymond Gangarosa, who formulated the economic theory behind the tobacco suits, gives this diagnosis: "We’ve got an immune system not attuned.... Failing to see this as cancer means it thrives while the body wastes away."

Treatments include strong FDA authority over this product manufactured with less regulation than shoes; increasing tobacco excise fees; protecting and expanding environments where the class-A toxins in second-hand smoke aren’t part of breathing; and ratifying the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. But a first step is to elect authentic leaders with the integrity to stand behind tobacco prevention—and all proven catchers in the rye. It’s simple in 2004. Deal with that crazy cliff, or deal with a landfill of bodies at the bottom.

—Rick Bernardo

Rick Bernardo is a public health consultant in Minneapolis. He is writing a book on the spiritual battles behind the tobacco war.

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