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Big Tobacco fesses up with landmark ads

New Hampshire Sunday News

November 18. 2017 11:29PM

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The ads put it bluntly: Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans a day - more than murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined. And "low tar" and "light" cigarettes are just as harmful, they state: "There is no safe cigarette."

These warnings, which begin appearing in newspapers and on TV next Sunday, are not coming from anti-smoking groups.

They're from the tobacco companies.

These "corrective statements" are the result of a protracted court battle that followed a 2006 court order in a lawsuit the U.S. Department of Justice brought against the major tobacco companies.

In a 1,653-page order, the judge in the case, Gladys Kessler, wrote that the tobacco industry "survives, and profits, from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system."

Michael Rollo is director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACSCAN). He said the upcoming ads represent "a huge win" for those who have been fighting the tobacco companies for years.

"It's been a long time coming, and it's reinforcing what we've known for decades, which is that these products are harmful and that this industry has used deceitful tactics to keep people using their product, which they know is causing harm," he said.

The statements include admissions by the tobacco companies in five areas:

. Adverse health effects of smoking;

. Addictiveness of smoking and nicotine;

. Lack of health benefits from smoking "low tar," "light," "mild," and "natural" cigarettes;

. Design of cigarettes to enhance the delivery of nicotine and make them more addictive;

. Adverse health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke.

Patricia Tilley is deputy director of the state Division of Public Health Services. She pointed out one flaw in the new campaign. Since it came out of a 2006 order, there's no requirement that the ads appear on new media platforms that could reach a broader - and younger - audience.

Still, she said, "We are always appreciative of any messaging about the adverse health effects of smoking and the addictiveness of smoking and nicotine."

And Tilley said she's pleased that the statements clarify that there are no health benefits to choosing "low-tar" cigarettes.

Between 1,700 and 1,900 New Hampshire residents die each year from tobacco-related conditions, Tilley said. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that smoking-related illnesses cost the state $729 million a year.

The Altria Group, whose subsidiaries include Philip Morris USA Inc. and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company LLC, recently issued a statement about the court-ordered ads, noting that the industry has "changed dramatically" over the past 20 years.

In 2009, Congress gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco product manufacturing and marketing, Altria's executive vice president and general counsel, Murray Garnick, said. "We're focused on the future and, with FDA in place, working to develop less risky tobacco products," he said.

"We remain committed to aligning our business practices with society's expectations of a responsible company," Garnick said. "This includes communicating openly about the health effects of our products, continuing to support cessation efforts, helping reduce underage tobacco use and developing potentially reduced-risk products."

Erika Sward, assistant vice president for national advocacy for the American Lung Association, worked on the federal tobacco case for decades. She called the court-ordered statements, which will also appear on cigarette packs and tobacco company websites, "unprecedented."

Sward said 16 million people in the United States are living with tobacco-related diseases, and approximately 480,000 die each year. "And we have a new generation of kids who did not live through the historic fights in Congress when tobacco was on the front page of every newspaper in the country for all those years."

That's why, Sward said, it's critical "to educate a new generation of Americans about the years of deception, fraud and lies from the tobacco industry that continue to this day."

Meanwhile, states continue to rely on money from tobacco companies to balance their budgets.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, New Hampshire received $218.2 million in tobacco tax money, and $42.6 million in tobacco settlement funds.

The settlement payments are the result of a lawsuit filed by 46 states against the four largest tobacco manufacturers that resulted in the largest civil litigation settlement in U.S. history. Under a 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), the participating tobacco companies agreed to pay the states a percentage of their profits each year in perpetuity.

Richard Head was director of the consumer protection bureau in the Attorney General's Office when he represented the state in court battles that arose after the MSA tobacco settlement. He's now counsel for both Rath, Young and Pignatelli in Concord and the SL Environmental Law Group in San Francisco.

The point of the annual payments, Head explained, "was in part to recover money that the state was spending for health care associated with tobacco use." The MSA also had provisions barring advertising that targets children, he noted.

The CDC sends New Hampshire about $866,000 a year for smoking prevention programs; that money funds the state's "Quitline" (1-800-QUIT-NOW), three full-time staff and media campaigns, Tilley said.

This year, the Legislature gave the public health division $145,000 for smoking cessation and prevention programs. That mostly pays for free nicotine replacement patches, gum and lozenges for those who call the Quitline, with a small amount going to ad campaigns, Tilley said.

Tilley was diplomatic when asked about the disparity between the millions of dollars the state gets from tobacco revenue and the amount it spends on prevention. "We're thankful for those dollars," she said, noting the program didn't get any funding in past years.

Even as they celebrate a victory with the new "corrective statements" coming out, advocates see another battle on the horizon: the growing popularity of e-cigarettes, especially among youth. Tilley said one recent study showed that one-third of high school senior boys here use e-cigarettes.

Tobacco companies promote such products as safer that regular cigarettes.

But for those who have fought for transparency for decades, the landscape feels all-too-familiar.

Earlier this month, the federal government pushed back the deadline for compliance with FDA regulations to 2021 for pipe tobacco and cigars - and to 2022 for "noncombustible" tobacco products such as e-cigarettes.

Without FDA regulation, Tilley said, "we really don't know whether they're safe or not." It's not just nicotine in e-cigarettes that concerns her; it's the chemicals in the flavorings they use.

"They are approved by FDA as flavorings you would add into your food, but they have not been fully studied yet as you inhale them," she said, citing a condition known as "popcorn lung" that was discovered among workers in a microwave popcorn factory.

The American Lung Association has "been sounding the warning bell" about e-cigarettes for years, Sward said. "We are deeply troubled by the FDA announcement that they will delay basic oversight," she said.

ACSCAN's Rollo worries that e-cigarettes are "renormalizing smoking." He says regulation is needed "because it's the wild west right now."

The new "corrective statements" coming from the tobacco companies are an "acknowledgement that what we've known all along is true," Rollo said.

And, he predicts, "In another 20 or 30 years, we'll be doing the same thing with these products."?

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