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Big Tobacco Buys Big Political Influence

Money is doled out to both sides of the aisle

The tobacco industry has always been a major player in congressional campaigns, but a new online map ( ash.org/map) shows just how pervasive tobacco money is in politics. The map, produced by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), allows you to click on your home district and see how much money your Member of Congress and Senators have accepted.

“Given the destruction that tobacco causes in this country, it is outrageous that so many politicians accept tobacco money,” said Dr. Alfred Munzer, Chairman of the Board of ASH and former President of the American Lung Association. Dr. Munzer, a pulmonologist, has campaigned for decades against tobacco use. “Roughly 80% of my patients suffer from tobacco-related diseases. No politician should share in the ill-gotten profits of the tobacco industry or owe favors to big tobacco.”

In the nearly 50 years since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report linking smoking with cancer and other diseases, the prevalence of smoking in the U.S. has plummeted, but tobacco still claims the lives of roughly 500,000 Americans each year. Smoking rates are still extremely high in some areas, and approximately 3,000 children start smoking every day.

Globally, tobacco is considered an epidemic by the World Health Organization. About 100 million people died from tobacco in the 20th century, a toll higher than both world wars combined. The WHO estimates that without dramatic action, tobacco will claim one billion lives this century.

“The United States has joined with the rest of the world in calling for serious action about tobacco, and part of that is acknowledging that the tobacco industry is the vector of the disease,” said ASH director Laurent Huber. The U.S. signed on to a UN political declaration last year that recognizes the need to tackle the tobacco epidemic and highlights “the fundamental conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health,” the reason why big tobacco should stay away from public policy. Huber added, “The public interest and the interests of the tobacco industry are diametrically opposed. It is simply unethical for politicians to take tobacco money.”

In addition to the massive health costs of tobacco use, there are dire economic implications. Tobacco disease costs taxpayers, including nonsmokers, hundreds of billions of dollars a year. One study estimated the cost to society of each pack of cigarettes at $18. Stronger tobacco control measures would go a long way toward reducing the deficit and saving medicare.

The tobacco industry is bi-partisan when it comes to buying political favors. Dozens of Democrats as well as Republicans gladly accept donations from tobacco corporations, and for decades members of both parties have returned the favor by voting for tobacco interests. After years of effort, Congress finally gave FDA limited authority over tobacco in 2009, but only after Philip Morris, the number one tobacco industry donor, said it was OK. Even now the tobacco industry seeks to undermine the effectiveness of FDA regulation.

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