Big tobacco is lighting the law on fire to peddle addiction
The tobacco industry is acting as if it’s above the law in California, and it ought to be a wake-up call about its quiet intentions to reverse the gains that have been made in reducing tobacco use over the past two decades.
In peddling addiction to children, the tobacco industry has refused to take no for an answer in California — not from parents, not from legislators, not from the courts and not from voters. Like any drug dealer, it keeps pushing, and it keeps trying to win over the most vulnerable potential customers: kids.
It’s despicable, but it’s not enough to shake our fists. We must organize and fight back — and keep fighting because the industry doesn’t let up, as Californians have seen first-hand.
In 2020, the California legislature passed a law prohibiting the tobacco industry from selling flavored products, which are used to lure children. The industry waged a campaign and lobbied ferociously against the bill — and failed. It then sponsored a ballot question to overturn the law and lost again, by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. But the industry still wasn’t finished: it asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the law and to reverse the will of the people. Again, it lost.
Over and over again, the industry tried to block the law. Each time, it lost. And now it has turned to a new tactic: evading the law.
Rather than selling products labeled menthol or mint, R.J. Reynolds now calls them “fresh” and “crisp.” The tagline on the ads promoting these products is: “California, We’ve Got You Covered.” Gee, what could that possibly mean?
The company is flouting the law and telling voters to buzz off — which would be a nice way of putting it — because it knows that habits form early, and it’s terrified of losing out on a generation of customers. Its whole business model is centered on selling addiction.
The science is clear that nicotine presents substantial health risks for children, including impairing their brain development and increasing the risk of using traditional cigarettes. But the more the industry feels threatened by the loss of young customers, the harder it fights for relevance — and the more it spends on propaganda and misinformation.
Here are a few facts the company does its best to conceal: Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the world. And in the U.S., the explosion of e-cigarette use among adolescents is tied directly to flavored products. More than 2.5 million U.S. middle and high schoolers use e-cigarettes and nearly 85 percent of them use flavored products.
The teen vaping crisis threatens the enormous and hard-fought progress that has been made in reducing tobacco use. This year marks the 20th anniversary of New York City’s Smoke-Free Air Act banning tobacco use in all indoor workplaces, including bars and restaurants, which I signed into law. Combined with other critical tobacco control measures, including tax increases, hard-hitting mass media campaigns and support for cessation programs, the law helped cut the smoking rate in New York City from 21.5 percent in 2002 to 13.9 percent over a little more than a decade, and the rate has continued to fall.
The law’s success led other cities, states, and countries to adopt their own smoking bans and other tobacco control measures. Bloomberg Philanthropies has supported that work with $1.58 billion committed to reducing tobacco use since 2005. And since we started, the number of countries with a strong tobacco control policy has grown to nearly 150 worldwide, including 57 countries — some in places where the industry’s power has historically been the strongest — becoming smoke-free.
Mexico, for instance, recently passed a comprehensive smoke-free law, as did Paraguay, making all of South America smoke-free and accelerating progress across Latin America. The Philippines is a global leader in cigarette taxes, raising average tobacco taxes by almost 800 percent since 2012, contributing to a 34 percent decline in tobacco use between 2009 and 2021. And in the U.S., more than 110 localities and states have passed flavor bans.
All this work has produced results few believed possible when we began it. Over the past decade, global cigarette sales have plummeted, with 750 billion fewer cigarettes sold annually, and global smoking rates have declined by 23 percent over 12 years. That has saved millions of lives and spared millions more from the suffering that comes with debilitating health problems. But the tobacco companies want to keep expanding their customer base, no matter the death and devastation it inflicts.
As the industry redoubles its efforts, Bloomberg Philanthropies will meet it head-on — with a new $420 million commitment to curb tobacco use in low and middle-income countries and to reduce e-cigarette use among teenagers in the U.S.
We know the industry won’t stop pushing its products, so we have to keep pushing back — harder than ever — with laws and policies that protect children from addiction and the dangers it brings.
It’s a fight we can win because the public is on our side. And it’s a fight we must win because so many children are counting on us, and so many lives are at stake.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the 108th Mayor of New York City and the World Health Organization Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries.
Editor’s note: This piece was updated on Feb. 2 at 1:23 p.m. to correct a percentage related to global smoking rates.
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