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PA's role in the tobacco wars

By Jeffrey Barg

With the tobacco wars and their proposed settlement front page news, Pennsylvanians may wonder what role our state is playing in this monumental struggle.

Pennsylvania, known more for its tobacco crop than its tobacco use prevention programs, has been showing signs that it may be waking from its slumber on this issue.

  • On April 23rd, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher filed suit against the tobacco industry for Medicaid costs incurred by treatment of tobacco-induced disease, charging the industry with a conspiracy to entice children into engaging in a deadly addiction.
  • On April 24th, Pennsylvania Treasurer Barbara Hafer announced that she was divesting the state’s Tuition Account Program of $227,000 in tobacco stocks and called for divestment of an additional $400 million in tobacco stock holdings in state pension and Workmen’s Insurance funds.
  • Governor Tom Ridge proclaimed June, 1997 Tobacco-Free Month in Pennsylvania “in order to educate Pennsylvanians about the harmful effects of tobacco use and to protect the life long health of our children and young people.”

It is somewhat remarkable to have three major state officials outside of the public health realm weigh-in on three separate tobacco prevention initiatives. Could this be the start of a serious effort to combat the number one cause of preventable death in the state or is it merely a hollow reflection of serious initiatives started elsewhere?

I would contend that if we scrutinize how these initiatives are conducted there will be a crucial feature that will identify them as either serious or not. While all three initiatives are based on the harm caused by tobacco use, the first two also question the very legitimacy of the tobacco industry. Experts and advocates believe that attacking the industry’s legitimacy is vital because mere health warnings and education do not sufficiently deter our kids from tobacco initiation nor do they help many smokers break the deadly addiction.

Of course, the tobacco industry has provided a seemingly endless supply of material to delegitimize themselves, much of it brought to light by internal whistleblowers and lawsuits. As Attorney General Fisher argues:

  • The tobacco industry knew decades ago that smoking causes deadly disease, including cancer, emphysema and heart disease—and deliberately hid those facts from the people of Pennsylvania.
  • The tobacco industry knowingly manipulated the nicotine content of cigarettes with the intention of hooking as many people as possible on smoking—particularly children—for as long as possible.
  • The tobacco industry deliberately suppressed research on and development of a safer cigarette.

The most damning fact is that they deliberately target kids. They have to. If you reach the age of 21 as a non-smoker, it’s extremely unlikely you will ever start using tobacco.

So if Attorney General Fisher does not fully prosecute his suit against Big Tobacco, giving them legitimacy and security in return for a large cash settlement, the ruination of our kids’ health will continue. If Governor Ridge stands on the sideline silent as Treasurer Hafer attempts to gain favor for tobacco stock divestment, our state pension funds will probably continue to support the makers of the number one cause of death in the commonwealth.

If, on the other hand, Attorney General Fisher uses the suit as an opportunity to further expose the tobacco industry’s transgressions and truly hamper their ability to hook our kids, while at the same time the governor joins the treasurer to dissociate the state from Big Tobacco, the tide will have genuinely turned in Pennsylvania.

Jeffrey Barg is president of the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Pennsylvania and chair of the Tobacco-free Education and Action Coalition for Health (TEACH).

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