Tobacco, an industry "addicted to its profits"


North Carolina's historic tobacco industry still carries modern influence.

The cash crop’s influence on NC can be seen in the nicknames of its cities and neighborhoods, from places like American Tobacco Campus in Durham to Camel City in Winston-Salem. But it’s also seen in the healthcare costs of residents.

Tobacco costs NC $3.81 billion in health care dollars every year. According to Cancer Action Network government relations director Christine Weason, $931.4 million of those are Medicaid dollars spent on medical treatment as a result of tobacco products.

“So certainly this is one area that needs to be addressed,” Weason said. “The challenge is that we have that rich history of tobacco. We are a tobacco state.”

Higher taxes incentivize people to lower their tobacco intake. However, NC has some of the lowest taxes in the country on tobacco products, Weason said.

NC politicians get sizable donations by tobacco companies. In his career, Sen. Richard Burr has received more than $190,000 in campaign contributions from Reynolds American, an NC-based tobacco company. In 2014, former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan received $78,806 from Lorillard Tobacco Company, also based in NC.

Burr and Hagan voted against the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, passed in 2009, which allows the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the tobacco industry. Hagan was the only Democrat in the Senate to vote against the bill.

The top 20 tobacco industry campaign donors contributed over $5 million in the last election cycle, said Rebecca Williams, a researcher at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. In the 2016 election cycle, Reynolds gave $482,737 to Republicans and $32,310 to Democrats.

Last year, the FDA started to assert authority over cigars and e-cigarettes through the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, said Gregg Haifley, the director of federal relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

“And so that’s one major area where the FDA just got the authority for the first time in the history of the United States back in 2009, and already the industry is maneuvering to undercut the FDA’s authority,” Haifley said.

The New York Times reported in 2016 that it received documents showing that Altria, a Virginia tobacco company, gave congresspeople a draft of a law removing the requirement that e-cigarettes already on the market must be found “appropriate for public health.” The bill was introduced by a congressperson two weeks later. Reynolds American endorsed Altria’s lobbying.

“I think it’s a shame that our regulators are receiving such sizable campaign contributions from tobacco companies that it may unduly influence their regulatory support and voting decisions, that it may actually influence the outcome of health policy legislation,” Williams said. “As a scientist, I feel strongly that regulators should be influenced by science and fact, not by campaign contributions.”

Haifley said that tobacco companies aggressively try to thwart public health efforts at the state and local levels too.

Weason said NC minors have increased their e-cigarette usage by 888 percent in between 2011 and 2015 and the tobacco industry spends almost $380 million dollars on marketing annually in NC.

Haifley said the influence of tobacco companies isn’t going away anytime soon.

“It’s an industry that is addicted to its profits and those are tied to their product and behavior addicting the public and causing disease and death throughout the nation,” he said.

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