The Tobacco Lobby: Maintaining Profits, Distorting Issues, Costing Lives

The Tobacco Lobby: Maintaining Profits, Distorting Issues, Costing Lives

Nearly everyone agrees that government should protect people from the harm caused by toxic hazards. In urging tougher laws, many politicians go even further arguing that the public needs protection from unproven and speculative environmental risks. But what about tobacco?

Instead of protecting the public from cigarettes, most tobacco-related laws protect the nicotine industry from being held accountable for their outrageous actions and deadly products. These laws were enacted as a result of the massive political and legislative influence purchased by tobacco companies. The major purpose of their lobbying efforts is to increase or maintain huge profits for the tobacco companies, which means keeping as many people addicted to nicotine as possible.

The tobacco lobby has grown rapidly over the past few years especially at the state level. During 1991 in California alone, the tobacco industry spent $2.7 million on contributions to politicians. Last year in Pennsylvania more than 35 lobbyists worked for the tobacco industry. Such lobbying can effectively block legislation that would decrease smoking rates, reduce the sale of cigarettes to minors and protect nonsmokers from passive smoke in public places.

Exempting Tobacco from Drug Programs

Causing nearly 500,000 deaths annually nicotine addiction is without a doubt the deadliest drug abuse in America. But drug war proponents in our government have outrageously exempted this number one killer from almost every substance abuse policy and program. Massive public funding and attention on substance abuse have been diverted to drugs that harm and kill far fewer people. The nicotine exclusion effectively keeps millions of Americans smoking.

The major media, which receive billions of advertising dollars annually from tobacco companies and their subsidiaries, assist with this cover-up by almost never portraying nicotine as an addictive and deadly drug. Famous for their anti-drug fried egg commercial, the Partnership for a Drug Free America includes tobacco advertisers.

Targeted by advertising and promotions, more than two million American youth become addicted to nicotine each year. About one billion packs of cigarettes are sold annually to minors through retailers and vending machines. No other type of drug pushing to teenagers is more blatant, widespread or profitable. But most national and state government officials have chosen to ignore the outrageous activities of tobacco pushers, which will probably result in 100 times more deaths than those caused by cocaine and heroin combined.

Vending Machines

Many studies have documented how easily children can buy cigarettes through vending machines. One survey commissioned by National Automatic Merchandizing Association (NAMA) found that 13 year olds were 11 times more likely than were 17 year olds to buy cigarettes from the machines. Although less than one percent of adult smokers buy cigarettes primarily from vending machines, there are more than 600,000 of these mechanical drug dealers in America, accounting for more than half of all locations where cigarettes are sold.

Pro-health activists have lobbied to enact more than 140 local ordinances in the past three years that eliminate or restrict the placement of cigarette vending machines. Vending machine companies have joined with the tobacco lobby in opposing the the ordinances. Lawsuits have even been filed to strike down these local laws. None of these court challenges, however, has yet to succeed.

The tobacco lobby is also trying to get state statutes enacted that would preempt (outlaw) all local cigarette vending machine ordinances. In order to succeed, tobacco lobbyists have been drafting and promoting state legislation that deceptively appears to protect minors from illegal vending machine sales. But careful analysis of the wording in these bills reveals that few, if any, vending machines would be eliminated and that only those who profit from illegal cigarette sales would receive any type of protection.


Although most states already have laws prohibiting tobacco sales to minors, these laws are almost never enforced. Even if they are enforced, they carry very small frees for retail clerks and do not hold accountable those who profit most from these illegal sales, the cigarette industry. To reduce over-the-counter sales to minors, pro-health groups are lobbying to license tobacco retailers in a similar way as liquor retailers are currently licensed. Businesses caught selling tobacco to minors would face stiff fines and temporary license suspension. In opposing licensure, the industry claims that the current laws are tough enough.

In an effort to shift the legislative focus from the industry and retailers, the tobacco lobby is now trying to blame children by urging state legislatures to criminalize minors for buying or possessing cigarettes. This can effectively stop teens from exposing retailers that illegally sell tobacco and prevent addicted youth from seeking treatment to overcome nicotine addiction.


The tobacco lobby spends a lot of money to oppose legislation that raises cigarette taxes because increasing prices have been shown dramatically to reduce nicotine addiction rates and corresponding cigarette sales. A ten percent price hike for cigarettes results in a four percent reduction in smoking. Younger smokers are affected disproportionately; half of those who quit are under age 26.

As a percentage of the retail price, cigarette taxes have dropped dramatically during the past twenty years, while state and federal expenditures for tobacco-related diseases have increased rapidly. In opposing cigarette tax hikes, the tobacco industry tries to fool the public into thinking that these taxes have skyrocketed and that smokers are being criminated against. The industry has also discreated front groups, appearing to represent concerned taxpayers, smokers and tobacco farmers to join them in their lobbying efforts to stop cigarette tax hikes.

Liability Reform

In an effort to immunize themselves from lawsuits by tobacco victims, tobacco companies have been spending much time and money lobbying for product liability reform. Any successful litigation would encourage an onslaught of similar suits and force manufacturers finally to be legally accountable for their deadly products and egregious actions. Manufacturers would then be forced to raise cigarette prices substantially to cover plaintiff awards and court costs. Like tax increases, these price hikes would further reduce the nicotine addiction rate.

In lobbying for product liability legislation, the tobacco companies have organized powerful coalitions with multinational manufacturers of other products. For public relations purposes, these coalitions claim that they want to reduce frivolous lawsuits against small local employers, who are given token status in the coalitions.

Passive Smoke and Clean Air Legislation

Meta-analysis of scientific studies has shown that environmental tobacco smoke kills about 50,000 Americans each year. If burned in an auditorium, just one cigarette creates greater concentrations of ammonia, benzene, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, methane, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and particulates than would be permitted outdoors by the Clean Air Act if their source were cars or a factory. Even though people spend 90 percent of the time indoors, indoor air has been shielded from clean air legislation by the efforts of the strong tobacco lobby.

The number of deaths attributed to passive smoke is far higher than those attributed to all other types of environmental pollution combined. But protecting humans from forced exposures to tobacco smoke has not been much of a concern for national and state legislatures or the major media. Neither has tobacco smoke pollution been on the agendas of most self proclaimed environmental activists, who create mass hysteria about levels of other pollutants that are virtually undetectable and have not been shown to harm humans.

The only smokefree legislation at the national level, where the tobacco lobby has maintained a strong power base, is the airline smoking ban passed in 1989. However, with little money, the non-smokers' rights movement has been able to make impressive progress at the local level in the past ten years. Smoking pollution control laws have been passed in hundreds of municipalities, with California leading the way. The original ordinances provided some protections, but many now require, smokefree indoor environments at most work and public places, even in bars.

Unlike Congress, municipal councils are less easily influenced by tobacco PAC money and lobbyists who cut deals in back rooms. Realizing this vulnerability, the tobacco industry recruited local restaurant and tavern associations and some labor union officials to provide visible opposition to clean indoor air laws. At the local level, tobacco lobbyists prefer to remain behind the scenes.

Preemption Strategy

Another tobacco industry reaction to local smokefree laws is to greatly expand its lobbying presence at the state level. In 1988 and 1989 the industry successfully lobbied half a dozen state legislatures, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois, to enact statutes that specifically preempt local laws, but provide little or no protection from tobacco smoke. Although the tobacco lobby publicly claimed to oppose these so-called state indoor air laws, the tobacco industry was their only beneficiary.

Recognizing that state indoor air laws which preempt local laws rarely promote health, pro-health activists have successfully prevented their enactment in other states. Non-preemptive clean indoor air laws have also been enacted at the state level, but most of these provide very little protection from tobacco smoke. In fact, at the state level, most of the laws that affect tobacco protect the industry.


Clearly, the tobacco lobby has purchased extensive influence from our federal and state governments and is now expanding at the local level. This is one of the most tragic examples of corruption in our public policy process.

Special privileges continue to be bought by tobacco companies, whose products kill more people than AIDS, alcohol, crack, cocaine, heroin, suicide, fires and automobile accidents combined. At the same time, thousands of pages of laws and regulations exist to protect the public from insignificant or nonexistent health risks.

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American Council on Science and Health, Inc.


By William T. Godshall

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As horrible as tobacco is, I don't see them going away any time soon. Think about all the other companies that benefit from them - pharmaceutical and insurance agencies, nicotine patches, even tooth paste and teeth whitening products. Cigarettes not only bring a ton of tax revenue to an already greedy government, but provide some of the biggest corporations with a large source of revenue.