Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why do politicians protect tobacco?

The Centers for Disease Control is the government agency charged with fighting the scourge of tobacco-related disease. President Trump’s CDC director was forced to resign when she was caught quietly investing in tobacco company stock. She planned to fight for the tobacco companies as do most Wyoming legislators.

Why do policymakers bet on tobacco rather than the health of Americans. Just how did such a deadly product achieve protective status among Wyoming and other politicians? It is a long and sordid story, a trail paved with gold.

Let’s time travel. Let’s go back to that long-ago day when the first tobacco company pitched the predecessors of something like the Wyoming Business Council. The chair calls the meeting to order.

“We have a promising economic development opportunity. I have invited Mr. Philip Morris to tell us about it.”

“Gentlemen and ladies, we have a fine product here. It is called tobacco. It grows easily in certain parts of the country. It will grow in almost any kind of soil. The tobacco leaf has many uses. You can smoke it in your pipe and now we have invented a method of wrapping it in paper. We call that ‘a cigarette.’ Tobacco can also be chewed.

“By stealing farm land from Native Americans and using slaves to plant, cultivate, and harvest the plants we kept costs down and profits high. The end of slavery had little impact. By that time millions were addicted to both tobacco and the money it generates. Tobacco couldn’t always rely on free labor and land so we cultivated compliant legislators.

“Tobacco is profitable even in cold weather states. You may not grow it here, but the good news is tobacco is highly addictive. Between 1890 when Wyoming became a state and 1903, tobacco sales in the USA rose from $25 million to over $316 million. Sales will be 10 times that amount by 2018. Addiction assures a high return on investment.

“Even in Wyoming, you can build an economy around tobacco. Grocery stores, bars, and convenience stores will make so much money off tobacco that they will hire lobbyists to make sure lawmakers don’t pass laws taxing or regulating its sale.

“Until we allowed lawmakers to say otherwise, we even peddled this stuff to kids. The younger they are when they start, the more addicted they are, the more we sell. Eventually, taxes and limited regulation were imposed. But the tobacco lobby was strong enough to make certain politicians didn’t do anything if we didn’t agree. Just a wink and a nod and an occasional campaign contribution and things were under control.

“In the interest of full disclosure, there is one problem we need to mention in passing. There is no safe way to use tobacco. Tobacco kills. The people who die and the illnesses they suffer will cost your healthcare system millions of dollars. Some 800 Wyoming citizens will die annually from tobacco. Twelve-thousand kids alive today in Wyoming will die from tobacco use and secondhand smoke. By 2018, 3 of 10 cancers will be tobacco related.

“Wyoming healthcare costs attributed to tobacco exceed a quarter of a billion dollars annually. Medicaid costs will total 44 million each year. Of course, legislators will blame poor people, not tobacco. Besides, the costs of tobacco-related illnesses can be shifted to average taxpayers.

“Increased taxes and bans on public smoking reduce tobacco use and save lives. Fortunately, those sorts of proposals require a commodity in short supply, i.e. courageous legislators. As our lobbyists will explain, tobacco retailers all across Wyoming depend on those folks getting sick and dying to make a few bucks.

“Wyoming has one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the United States and, at the same time, fiscal deficits of tens-of-millions of dollars. Even so, lawmakers will protect tobacco, rather than the health of the people.

“What can I say?  Wyoming tobacco peddlers hired better lobbyists than did people with cancer or emphysema. That’s how it works in the Land of the Free.”

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