By Mary Bottari and Brendan Fischer
Yesterday, as General Motors and Walgreens announced they were quitting the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC members were meeting at a "five diamond" hotel in Salt Lake City to discuss how tobacco can cure smoking.
ALEC brings together corporate lobbyists and right-wing politicians behind closed doors to craft, amend and vote on ALEC "model" bills, which are then introduced in statehouses across the land stripped of their ALEC origin.
According to an agenda obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), "Can Tobacco Cure Smoking?" is the title of a workshop yesterday morning led by the tobacco industry-backed Dr. Brad Rodu, who is trained as a dentist but has the title "Chair of Tobacco Harm Reduction Research" at the University of Louisville, a program that the Wall Street Journal found was primarily funded by U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., an ALEC member and manufacturer of smokeless tobacco brands like Copenhagen and Skoal. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Heartland Institute, the Illinois-based think tank that attracted attention earlier this year for making billboards that likened those who believe in man-made climate change to mass murderers and terrorists.
Rodu's research supports the idea that smokers should replace cigarettes with smokeless chewing tobacco or "snus" moist tobacco packets -- a "free market" solution to reducing smoking that would allow tobacco companies to continue profiting off of addiction.
The Food & Drug Administration and health advocates have strongly opposed substituting cigarettes with smokeless tobacco because "chew" and "snus" still cause cancer and other serious diseases, and suggesting that smokeless tobacco is a safe alternative would likely lead to a rise in overall tobacco use. The risk is even more significant because tobacco companies market the product to young people with "winter chill" flavors and bright candy-colored packaging. Additionally, because of the low salt content, snus users don't need to spit, making it nearly impossible to tell if a high schooler is chewing snus or Bazooka Joe bubble gum.
As CMD has reported, in May of 2011 ALEC member Sen. Alberta Darling (R-WI) quietly inserted an amendment into the state budget that was virtually identical to the tobacco industry-supported ALEC model bill "Resolution on the Enhancement of Economic Neutrality, Commercial Efficiency, and Fairness in the Taxation of Moist Smokeless Tobacco (MST) Products." The provision would change the way tobacco is taxed from a per-unit basis or a percentage of cost to a weight-based tax, which would effectively lower the price of snus and smokeless tobacco products manufactured by the big tobacco companies. The provision successfully passed after ALEC sent a letter to Wisconsin legislators supporting the amendment, but it was too extreme even for Governor Scott Walker, who vetoed it.
Although ALEC has shed 30 corporate members in recent months as the organization has come under increasing public scrutiny for its backing of extreme voter suppression bills, unconstitutional anti-immigrant laws and Florida-style "Stand Your Ground" legislation, the tobacco industry has remained faithful. Reynolds American is a "President"-level sponsor of ALEC's 2012 conference (which in 2010 cost $100,000) and Altria/Philip Morris is a "Chairman" level sponsor (which in 2010 cost $50,000). Additionally, former tobacco industry lobbyist W. Preston Baldwin III is the Chairman of ALEC's Private Enterprise Board, Reynolds America lobbyist David Powers is the Board's treasurer, and Altria lobbyist Daniel Smith is part of the Board's Executive Committee. Additionally, Philip Morris lobbyist Brandie Davis, the Private Sector Co-Chair of the ALEC International Relations Task Force, has been named a "Private Sector Member of the Year" for 2012.
ALEC recently hired the Edelman PR firm, the preferred spinmeisters of global tobacco corporation, to polish its image and stem the corporate flight from the organization.
Also paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to sponsor the ALEC meeting -- including the "Can Tobacco Make You Healthier?" panel -- are companies that claim to be in business to make sick people well, such as pharmaceutical companies Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline and Alkermes, and pharmaceutical trade group PhRMA, each of which are "Chairman"-level sponsors of this year's meeting. The "Chairman" level cost $50,000 in 2010, meaning these companies may have spent $200,000 or more to sponsor the meeting. Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline also have representatives on the ALEC Private Enterprise Board, where they sit alongside representatives from the tobacco industry. Other health-related companies sponsoring this year's meeting are insurance company State Farm at the $25,000 "Vice-Chairman" level, and at the $10,000 "Director" level, pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim and hospital operator Intermountain Healthcare.
Despite public pressure, Big Pharma has stood with Big Tobacco, firmly behind ALEC.
The "Can Tobacco Cure Smoking?" workshop is one of around a dozen that state legislators are attending at ALEC's 39th Annual Meeting, which runs July 25th through 28th at Salt Lake's swank Grand America Hotel, the only AAA Five Diamond hotel in the city. Other workshops include "Municipal Pension Reform" and "Using Non-Addictive Medication in Alternatives to Incarceration," and one titled "Regulation Without Representation" warning of how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) "has taken on an ardent regulatory agenda that threatens the representative nature of our government."
The Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force, for example, will discuss topics like "the resurgence of 'right to work,'" getting rid of licensing restrictions for certain professions, and eliminating federal restrictions on states charging toll fees on roads. The Communications and Information Technology Task Force will discuss "the high cost to taxpayers from municipal broadband" and the Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force "will cover the EPA's regulation of carbon dioxide" as well as consider model bills like the Animal Property Protection Act and the Intrastate Coal and Use Act.
Legislators will also attend corporate-sponsored parties and receptions, including an "invitation only" cigar reception, from 9 p.m. to midnight tonight, hosted by one of ALEC's major tobacco firms.
It is not yet known if snus will be on the menu.