The tobacco industry and its products (primarily cigarettes) has caused the premature deaths of over 13 million people in the United States since the 1964 Surgeon General’s Report which concluded that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. Those health professionals, who are familiar with these statistics, and with the great lengths the industry has gone to to try to cover them up, have little sympathy for the industry’s current decline in the U.S. Many want nothing more than the annihilation of the tobacco industry. This is all the more understandable for those people who have seen patients and loved ones suffer and die from a smoking-caused illness. Some may feel that the tobacco industry and those in it do not deserve to continue to make money from such a deadly business.
It is quite appropriate that the emotions evoked by these aspects of the tobacco industry inspire many public health professionals to strive harder to oppose everything the tobacco industry does. However, these emotions may also cause some in public health to take their eye off the ultimate goal, which is the reduction of tobacco-caused harm. It is an unfortunate fact that the tobacco industry is not only a legal business; it is a very profitable one that has existed and gained in power and influence since the very birth of the United States.
Through that history and those massive financial resources the tobacco industry has been able to have enormous influence on elected and appointed public officials, continuing to this day. In addition, the dramatic increase in both federal and state cigarette taxes over the past 15 years has led to a situation in which the states have become dependent on those taxes as a source of revenue to balance their budgets. Recently total state revenues from tobacco taxes have been in the region of $20 billion per year.
Meanwhile, tobacco companies have a duty to maximize profits for shareholders. They are not going to stop selling cigarettes just because it would be good for public health.
This situation is part of the reason why I believe the best strategy for public health is one that forces/encourages the tobacco industry to morph from an industry that predominantly sells products that cause the premature deaths of half of its consumers (cigarettes), to one that sells products that do not cause lung cancer or respiratory diseases at all.
I believe the most practical way for this to happen is for tobacco companies to switch their focus away from cigarettes and towards other less harmful tobacco products such as smokeless tobacco. This is more realistic than total annihilation of the industry, partly because it would allow the companies to remain in business as tobacco companies, and for governments to continue to tax these products in order to balance their budgets.
For more details on the rationale for this, check out a presentation I gave to the Tobacco Merchants’ Association Annual Meeting in 2007:
For a summary of recent changes in tobacco taxes check out:
For an article on the implications of state tax revenues for policy, check:
This post, How To Get The Tobacco Industry To Stop Selling Cigarettes, was originally published on Healthine.com by Jonathan Foulds, Ph.D..