Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Odd Couple: Wyoming legislators and big tobacco

Wyoming legislators have always had an odd relationship with big tobacco. The oddity of that relationship was demonstrated again during this session. Faced with dire fiscal challenges and budget shortfalls, the legislature refused once again to increase the tobacco tax.

The House passed an increase. It was killed by three state senators, including Laramie County freshman Affie Ellis, who took her first opportunity to back big tobacco.

It isn’t just Wyoming lawmakers who exhibiting an odd relationship with tobacco. It’s been that way since 1612 when the first commercial tobacco crop was raised in Jamestown.

According to “The Tobacco Timeline,”, tobacco has the dubious heritage of being a significant cause for the introduction of slavery into the Americas. At first, slaves were indentured servants. They could be denied their liberty for only a limited number of years. That’s the first time the relationship between tobacco and lawmakers became problematic.

Having to choose between the freedom of human beings and an “affordable” work force to raise and harvest tobacco, Virginia’s legislature passed laws permitting “lifelong” slavery. In 1759 George Washington’s slaves harvested his first tobacco crop.

Soon thereafter, lawmakers began a centuries-long practice of ignoring medical studies warning of lethal health impacts from smoking. In 1761, a British doctor warned snuff users that they were risking nose cancer. But by then, Pope Benedict XIII had taken up smoking and the clergy depended on tobacco revenue then as much as convenience stores do now, making the politics of tobacco more complicated.

Congress first taxed tobacco in 1794. James Maddison protested, giving rise to talking points used by tobacco lobbyists this very day. He said the tax would “deprive poor people of innocent gratification.”

The 1800s witnessed the rise of the tobacco empires of Philip Morris, J.E Liggett, Benson and Hedges, and the Duke family. Anti-tobacco efforts backed by an increasing number of medical studies could was no match for their economic and political power. Even so, there were strong regulatory efforts nationwide, well, almost nationwide.

In 1901, there were 45 states. Their legislatures faced choices between citizen health and tobacco profits. Forty-three of them “either had anti-cigarette laws on the books,” or “were considering new or tougher anti-cigarette laws.” Louisiana and Wyoming were the holdouts.

Whether it was a reasonable tax on tobacco or a ban on public smoking, Wyoming’s legislators inevitably chose the false claims of big tobacco over rational policies based on fact and science. The odd relationship between Wyoming’s legislators and big tobacco is as inexplicable today as it was in 1901. The relationship withstood evidence that tobacco companies lied to Congress about the fact that their products caused cancer and heart disease. Wyoming lawmakers yawned when Philip Morris claimed smoking was actually good for the economy because dying early saved the cost of public benefits.

The odd relationship between Wyoming legislators and big tobacco withstood tobacco companies’ immoral practices of marketing their deadly products to children as well as evidence that higher taxes actually deter kids from using. The relationship persists despite the millions of dollars that tobacco costs the state’s taxpayers for health care and lost productivity.

Here we are in 2017. Wyoming’s legislators no longer even consider public smoking bans. Only seven states, mostly those producing tobacco, have a lower tax than Wyoming.  

The American Cancer Society made sure legislators knew the human and budgetary costs of tobacco use to no avail. Lawmakers are wringing their hands over funding education while eliminating safety-net programs for the poor and disabled. Still they only have ears for the tobacco lobby. The bill defeated this year would have raised the tax by an insignificant amount. Yet it would have provided $3 million toward the costs of involuntary mental health commitments, a program deeply in the red otherwise. The rejected tax would have also generated a badly needed $1.4 million for cities and towns.

Somehow those public benefits are insufficient to overcome the special relationship some legislators have with the tobacco lobby. Odd, isn’t it?

1 comment:

  1. It is all the same lobby. They agree to lobby for our coal while we lobby for their tobacco! Corruption for both that pays well.