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For the Convenience of the Tobacco Companies

It’s time the Obama Administration stood up to the promotion of cigarettes and stop caving into the industry.
September 4, 2013


OPINION -- September 4, 2013 -- Oregon holds the dubious distinction of ranking number one in the country for retailers illegally selling cigarettes to underage kids. Moreover, we have ranked number one three out of the past five years and ranked in the top five the other two years.

Tobacco companies know very well that if you don’t start smoking before age 18, chances are you never will. That’s why their advertising is aimed directly (although often imperceptibly to the unknowing public) at teenagers.

Convenience store managers also know where their bread is buttered. According to the American Lung Association, cigarette sales accounted for a staggering 38% of all convenience store sales in 2011. Average annual sales per store were over $624,000. No other single sales category was even close.

In the hierarchy of corporate villains, tobacco companies have always occupied a lofty perch. Since the 1940’s, they’ve buried incriminating scientific evidence, lied about harmful health effects and unleashed an army of lobbyists at the local, state and national levels to block regulation and fight tax increases on their products.

It’s easy to see how effective their lobbyists (and the lobbyists of their good friends at the convenience stores and Oregon Restaurant Association) have been in this state. The penalty for illegal sales to minors starts at $100 – that’s not a typo – and averages a whopping $450. Oregon also doesn’t require increased penalties for repeat offenders. And get this – the sales clerk is fined, not the store owners. This isn’t even a slap on the wrist – it’s a light tap with a pinky finger.

You’d think the federal government at least would be doing everything possible to diminish tobacco use. Think again. President Obama and his trade representatives to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations have now caved in to the tobacco industry and their friends in Congress. The U.S. could have blocked out tobacco trade from the TPP so that all nations can curb tobacco use through labeling and other regulation without fear of expensive legal challenges from the tobacco companies. They’re already attacking Australia and Uruguay that have strong labeling regulations. 

Instead, the U.S. has refused to cite tobacco as a uniquely dangerous product and hasn’t recommended removing it from the TPP negotiations. Not uniquely dangerous? Tobacco is the only legal consumer product that kills people when used as intended. Thank goodness Malaysia stepped forward to do the heavy lifting for public health, forcing the question to be delayed until the next round of talks.

The Obama administration has understandably expressed its opposition to use of the chemical Sarin that has killed hundreds in Syria. It’s too bad it doesn’t have the backbone to stand up to the promotion of cigarettes chock full of other chemicals that have killed hundreds of millions all over the world.