Days after CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald resigned following revelations that she had purchased stock in major tobacco companies, it came out that U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch owned at least $15,000 worth of tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI)’s shares, while Senator Patty Murray’s husband previously owned shares in Reynolds American, another tobacco titan. These disclosures contrasted sharply with both senators’ positions on the Senate committee overseeing public health policy, and elicited justifiable outrage over the idea that officials in charge of anti-tobacco initiatives had financial interests in Big Tobacco.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald, Hatch and Murray’s links to tobacco are not so unusual after all, but merely the latest visible examples of policymakers accepting money from tobacco industry interests. The full breadth and depth of such ties raises serious concerns about the extent to which these connections have affected tobacco control policies, both in the U.S. and Europe.
Observers astonished by Fitzgerald’s tobacco shares forget U.S. policymakers’ long history of being intimately tied with Big Tobacco. By the late 1990s, the industry spent more than $10 million every national election cycle. This wasn’t even kept very hush-hush: nearly 60% of members of Congress accepted tobacco money, and former Speaker of the House John Boehner actually handed out checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor.
Connections to Big Tobacco have reached a fever pitch in the Trump administration. Trump himself declared investments in Philip Morris, which along with Reynolds American donated $1.5 million to Trump’s inauguration. Vice President Mike Pence claimed in 2001 that “despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” Two months later, tobacco lobbyists debated when to cut Pence his next check. Over Pence’s Congressional career, these payments added up to an estimated $39,000.
Health Secretary Tom Price, forced to resign over his extensive charter travel on the taxpayers’ dime, pocketed campaign donations from Big Tobacco for decades and held $37,000 worth of Philip Morris shares in 2012. Attorney General Jeff Sessions received so much money from Reynolds’ PAC during one of his Senate campaigns that he had to send some back.
The problem is by no means limited to the United States: Big Tobacco has thoroughly penetrated British politics as well. At the seemingly harmless end of the scale, the House of Commons was caught buying small tins of snuff at taxpayers’ expense. On a more sinister note, British American Tobacco is the top beneficiary of the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund.
This investment choice accompanies a long saga of MPs and peers accepting gifts from the tobacco industry, such as opera and tennis tickets. One in four MPs who voted against plain packaging had accepted hospitality from the tobacco industry, many of whom spoke out vehemently against the tobacco control measure. Conservative MP Mark Field, who had accepted Wimbledon tickets from Imperial Tobacco, warned against a “huge rebellion” in Parliament.
But while accepting such gifts is not illegal under British law, it does violate the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to which the UK is a party. The FCTC calls on signatories to kick the tobacco industry from the decision making process, reserving contact for when absolutely necessary to efficiently regulate the sector – which clearly does not apply to MP David Morris’ all- expenses-paid visit to one of Japan Tobacco International’s factories in Northern Ireland.
Big Tobacco has been hard at work across the Channel, as well—most infamously in the so-called Dalligate scandal. EU Health Commissioner John Dalli was forced to resign after it was suspected that he knew about Maltese entrepreneur Silvio Zammit’s attempts to solicit massive bribes from the tobacco industry in exchange for influence over the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Ironically, the commissioner who replaced Dalli had an investment, albeit small, in Imperial Tobacco.
Despite the European Union’s adherence to the FCTC, there has been intense contact between MEPs and tobacco lobbyists, particularly leading up to the vote on the TPD. Philip Morris spent a staggering €5.25 million in 2013 to lobby MEPs, keeping 161 lobbyists on its payroll to meet with nearly a third of the European Parliament.
Many MEPs acknowledge the extraordinary pressure the tobacco industry places on them, but insist that their votes aren’t influenced by their contacts with Big Tobacco, just as British politicians who accepted industry gifts claim that they are able to keep such hospitality separate from their political work.
These assertions are disingenuous – it’s clear that Big Tobacco is getting more for their money than that. They successfully shaped the EU’s Treaty of Amsterdam to their will. They repeatedly delayed key votes on the TPD, and made certain that when finally passed, the directive was significantly watered down from initial drafts. They are employing the same tactics on their latest battleground, the track and trace system provided for by the TPD to combat the illicit cigarette trade.
The tobacco industry is now hoping that the implementing measures published by the Commission are adopted. While the FCTC and its Protocol on the elimination of the illicit trade in tobacco products (both of which have been ratified by the EU) prohibit the industry from taking part in the track and trace system due to the companies’ role in advancing the parallel trade, the EU’s own system would provide them with key roles. The so-called delegated acts spelling out the conditions for the track and trace system are now up for review with the European Parliament. One MEP, Younous Omarjee, has already called on his colleagues to veto the text.
We can be sure, based on this long history, that Big Tobacco will be doing its utmost to buy this vote as well. It’s time for Europe to recognize the lengths to which the tobacco industry will go to promote its agenda, and to accept that conflicts of interest like Fitzgerald’s dabbling in tobacco stocks are more pervasive than we might like to admit. Until the EU ferrets out all of these connections and establishes a zero-tolerance principle for policymakers having financial links to Big Tobacco, European tobacco control legislation will have smoky fingerprints all over it.
*Alicia Conway is currently undertaking a Master’s in Economics and Management in London.
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