Why Tobacco is an Albatross for the Republican Party

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 10:02
Posted in category Wellness

Discussions on various tobacco-regulation initiatives were heavily promoted by a large number of Democratic senators and congressmen, often led by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. Republicans, generally speaking, either stood on the side-lines or actively opposed any such efforts. Indeed, the partisan split on tobacco issues is so divisive, some journalists, referring to contributions by Big Tobacco, have characterized the Republican Party as a wholly owned subsidiary of the tobacco industry.

It is widely believed and reported that when Republicans vote against proposed tobacco legislation, they are doing so as surrogates for the tobacco industry. No one seems to consider the possibility that Republicans who vote against tobacco legislation may have very legitimate, legal, ethical or common sense reasons for doing so.

Consider the votes last month in the House of Representatives about whether to allow funding for the Justice Department’s lawsuit against tobacco companies.

While the House allowed the suit to go forward, 30 members of the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut off the funding. Most of those who voted against it were Republicans. Why did they vote “no” on the lawsuit? The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids tell us it was because these members of Congress “had received $245,000 in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry since 1997.” Never mind the fact that $245,000 divided among 30 politicians over three years amounts to a bit over $2,700 each per year.

Could it be possible that the Republicans voted against the lawsuit because this case made no sense?

Indeed, the argument that the federal government deserves reimbursement from the tobacco industry is fatally flawed — as was the similar argument made by the states seeking reimbursement. Certainly, the Feds (read: taxpayers), through Medicare, pick up the costs of caring for lung cancer patients and other victims of smoking. But it is difficult to argue that a patient with cigarette-related disease who dies, say, at age 54 from lung cancer costs the government more than caring for a nonsmoker who lives to age 95, spending the last 15 years of life in a nursing home.

Further, one can always advance the macabre argument that cigarette smokers save the government money by dying before they withdraw their share of Social Security funding.

The bottom line here is that there are sound policy reasons for rejecting a proposal for funding to underwrite a federal lawsuit against Big Tobacco. If what happened with the “loot” from the states settlement is any harbinger of events following a settlement of a Federal suit, the tobacco money would be used for everything except efforts to reduce tobacco use. (States are now squabbling about how to spend the tobacco windfall — on new highways, schools and other special interest wish lists.)

There is something crass and horrifying about the underlying premise of these government suits against the cigarette companies: The message seems to be, “OK, pay up for the health damage you caused, and you can then return to business as usual, selling a product that kills people without proper warning.”

So the Republicans are again held up as examples of the best congressmen money can buy. Republicans are characterized by Democrats as foolish, uncaring and manipulative on issues of tobacco and health. And the Republicans deserve to be so skewered — not because they are truly trying to cover for the industry. And not because their rejection of funding for the government lawsuit was ill advised.

Republicans deserve the criticism they get because as we enter a presidential election year, this party has no program of its own to deal with the health devastation of tobacco use in America. Until the Republican party decides to tackle this critical issue and agree on strategies that are compatible with their ideology, they will continue to be viewed as lap dogs for the industry that causes the premature death of nearly a half a million Americans a year.

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