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Is McConnell’s ‘Tobacco 21’ Pledge Actually Just a Big Gift to Big Tobacco?

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

“The industry is positioning Tobacco 21 as the only thing that needs to be done on tobacco prevention.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to introduce legislation to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21, calling it a “top priority” to discourage youth nicotine addiction. The announcement drew immediate support from major tobacco and vaping companies, but anti-tobacco advocates are concerned the bill and other ‘Tobacco 21’ bills will block more effective measures to curb youth smoking while giving the appearance of progress.

McConnell announced the initiative to a crowd in his home state of Kentucky, a major tobacco-producing state. McConnell claimed he wanted to move the state away from its dependence on “tobacco culture,” saying:

“Their vaping products … these young people may not know what chemicals they are putting in their bodies. Far too often, 18-year-olds in high school can legally buy vaping devices and share them with their classmates.”

Is ‘Tobacco 21’ a Trojan Horse?

“They are turning these Tobacco 21 bills into Trojan horses,” John Schachter, director of state communications for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Politico. “The industry is positioning Tobacco 21 as the only thing that needs to be done on tobacco prevention,” Schacter said. Anti-smoking advocates argue the industry is lobbying for bills that raise the smoking age solely to gain good optics, while lobbying against regulations that would truly curb addiction.

“The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I said, ‘This is really terrible,'” said professor Rob Crane, explaining how he felt upon hearing of Sen. McConnell’s bill. Crane, a family medicine professor at Ohio State University and president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation, fears the Senate majority leader’s federal bill will model recent state tobacco bills, which raised the legal smoking age while neglecting more important anti-smoking measures.

According to the Center for Disease Control, e-cigarette flavors drove an increase in teen use last year, and raising taxes just $1 a package has been proven to cut tobacco purchases. While experts argue these measures are the most important for limiting youth smoking, a series of state bills from Arkansas to Virginia raise the legal age without including them.

Tobacco companies “tend to be a lot more focused on the restriction of flavors than on the age of purchase,” Lisa David, president and CEO of nonprofit Public Health Solutions, told Politico.

McConnell’s Sordid History With Big Tobacco

McConnell has a long history of involvement with the tobacco industry, available in detail after a litigation demanded the release of thousands of documents related to major tobacco companies. The internal files show lobbyists from RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris coaching McConnell with industry talking points to challenge FDA claims that smoking caused increased cancer risk.

According to the Lexington Herald Reporter, tobacco industry “attorneys helped draft a bill [McConnell] filed to protect their companies from lawsuits, as well as his correspondence to the White House to oppose federal smoking-prevention programs.”

McConnell reportedly asked an RJ Reynolds lobbyist for $200,000 in campaign funding after helping to “kill a proposal to curb youth smoking.” Philip Morris later sent the Senator $150,000 for GOP campaigns.

Tobacco lobbyists have given the Senator a broad variety of presents over the years, from Ringo Starr tickets and football passes to “delicious pecan candies,” and even a “beautiful ham” from a representative of the Tobacco Institute.

While the scientific consensus on the carcinogenic effects of tobacco is now broadly accepted, the industry’s presence in Washington remains prominent. Even though tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death in the US, recent heads of the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services have held ties to the industry. Current Solicitor General Noel Francisco worked for the tobacco industry and Vice President Mike Pence, who argued “smoking doesn’t kill” in 2001, has received tens of thousands from big tobacco.

President Trump’s limited financial disclosures show he earned up to $2.1 million from tobacco stocks in the three years before he took office. Reynolds group gave $1 million at Trump’s inaugural celebration and Altria group gave $500,000. Altria hired Sen. McConnell’s former chief of staff as a tobacco lobbyist in 2017.

“Tobacco industry influence in Washington is pervasive, in many different ways. They have an active presence on the Hill, they meet frequently with administrative agencies, on hugely significant issues such as regulation of e-cigarettes, tobacco packaging and warnings,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Best Buds: Big Tobacco and Big Oil

Investigative journalist Lee Fang claims McConnell’s old arguments against tobacco regulation relate to his prevention of climate action today. In 1993, Sen. McConnell rejected a bill to ban smoking in federal buildings, arguing, “there clearly is insufficient science or logic to justify this extreme action.” He has also refused to acknowledge the severity of climate change on the grounds that he’s “not a scientist.”

The fossil fuel and tobacco industries have been two of Sen. McConnell’s biggest donors throughout his 35-year career.

Documents analyzed by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) show the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have held close ties for decades. Both industries have used Hill & Knowlton Inc, a prominent public relations firm, since 1954. The files investigated by CIEL show both industries spent large sums to disseminate doubt about the negative public health effects of tobacco and burning fossil fuels.

“From the 1950s onward, the oil and tobacco firms were using not only the same PR firms and same research institutes, but many of the same researchers. Again and again we found both the PR firms and the researchers worked first for oil, then for tobacco. It was a pedigree the tobacco companies recognized and sought out,” CIEL President Carroll Muffett said in a statement.

“Money plays a role in almost every decision Mitch McConnell makes. In the ’90s, he shilled for tobacco as the industry promised him and his colleagues protection and now, with energy billionaires and oil companies fueling his campaigns, he’s covering for them on climate policy,” David Donnelly, president of campaign-reform group Every Voice, told the Nation.

Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a co-owner Citizen Truth.

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