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Tobacco companies are at it again

Originally published: rabble.ca on July 2, 2024 by Ellen Gould (more by rabble.ca)  | (Posted Jul 04, 2024)

The tobacco companies with their toxic business—peddling “the only legal consumer product that kills up to half of its users when used exactly as intended”—were for a brief time on the run. Half of Canadian adults smoked in 1965 but that was down to one-in-ten by 2020.

Such a positive trend was due to whistleblowers and public health advocates who worked for decades to get effective measures to reduce smoking. These champions of the public interest often paid a significant personal price because of harassment orchestrated by Big Tobacco.

The hope was that we might see a generation of young people freed from nicotine addiction. However, when we weren’t looking Big Tobacco came up with a product that will create a new customer base of nicotine addicts.

One company alone, Philip Morris International (Rothmans, Benson & Hedges parent company in the U.S.), spent $10.5 billion to develop smoke-free nicotine products. Most of this money was spent on e-cigarettes, devices that heat tobacco and release a vapour containing nicotine.

Shamefully, some e-cigarettes are designed to look like toys and have flavours like bubble gum to appeal to children and teens. Canada now has one of the highest youth vaping rates in the world, with one-in-four having vaped within the past month.

This is unspeakably sad. Nicotine exposure among young people is linked to cognitive impairment, hyperactivity, and increased risk of suicide. And young people who vape are 3.6 times more likely to become cigarette smokers than those who do not.

To capture a new generation of life-long, nicotine-addicted customers, Big Tobacco puts enormous effort into staving off public health restrictions on vaping. It wants vaping to be free of the regulatory constraints imposed on smoking.

In what seems to be a common formula for corporate misinformation campaigns, pro-vaping citizens groups are funded and influencers are hired and to normalize vaping for vast audiences on social media. University professors with vaping company grants publish articles in journals and newspapers opposing government regulation and disputing the science around vaping’s harmful effects. Not surprisingly, a UN study found that articles whose authors declared they had conflicts of interest because of ties with tobacco or pharmaceutical companies were 29 times more likely to be favourable to vaping.

Pro-vaping sites can masquerade as health promotion. If you visit the website https://www.unsmoke.ca/ of Rothmans campaign to deregulate vaping, you might think you were on a Canadian Cancer Society page so strong are the messages about the need to quit smoking cigarettes—cigarettes that Rothmans itself continues to produce. Rothmans though makes itself out to be addicted smokers’ best friend, doing what it can for them by providing e-cigarettes as this wonderful,  advanced method of “harm reduction”.

I personally was exposed to this far-reaching campaign for vaping deregulation when, as a member of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP), I got an email inviting me to participate in a CARP focus group on vaping. I was initially going to sign up until I read the fine print at the end of the invitation saying “The funding client for this project is Unsmoke Canada, an initiative of Rothmans, Benson & Hedges (RBH).”

CARP,  despite their self-declared mission to promote the “quality of life of Canadians as we age”, apparently did not hesitate to say “yes” to Rothmans when the company approached them to collaborate on a vaping project. Knowing that CARP had no problem taking money from Big Tobacco made me question the other positions the organization has taken and whether these have been influenced by funders. I have since learned that in 2020 CARP was in favour of a single, public Pharmacare plan. Now, though, CARP has changed its position and is opposing Pharmacare,  writing editorials that are identical to the lobbying campaign against Pharmacare mounted by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. CARP’s financial statements show that it has been experiencing sharp declines in revenue and membership, perhaps making it more vulnerable to corporate capture.

CARP will not disclose how much it got from Rothmans or any of its other corporate funders. The organization seems unconcerned about reputational damage over getting in bed with Big Tobacco. Yet most CARP members like me will have personal experience of the extreme harm caused by tobacco companies. I had asthmatic bronchitis as a child from being exposed to second-hand smoke. I saw my father repeatedly go through hell trying to quit. The fact that Big Tobacco altered cigarettes to make them more addictive helps me understand now why he struggled so much, that it wasn’t just a question of personal willpower.

Tobacco companies knew back in the 1950s that their products caused cancer and lied about it. In the 1970’s, when the evidence of tobacco harm could no longer be denied, they came out with “light” and “low tar” cigarettes that they claimed were better for you. That also proved to be the opposite of the truth. So with their recent claims that vaping is “harm reduction”, we have good reason to distrust them. We have seen this movie before.

But you would think all this corporate lying and the terrible personal experiences so many of us seniors have suffered would make a seniors’ advocacy organization at least slightly apologetic about taking money from Big Tobacco.

Not CARP. Instead, CARP’s president Rudy Buttignol personally attacked me for raising my concerns on CBC. His email to CBC provided some choice quotes. He called me “woke”, “illiberal”, and said “shrug” in dismissing my decision to cancel my membership.

Clearly CARP public relations needs some work. This week I received one of their mass emails asking me to renew my membership, despite my having gone on national TV to cut up my CARP card. Buttignol says in the email that renewing my membership was “crucial” to achieving CARP’s goals, even though he had publicly shrugged off my membership cancellation.

This is a Big Tobacco story though, that has a happy ending. The CBC’s “Go Public” segment on CARP’s partnering with Rothman’s included an interview with Robert Schwartz, executive director at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Tobacco Research Unit. That interview enabled more information to get out about the harm caused by vaping and why it is not a good way to stop smoking. Buttignol’s attempt to marginalize my concerns failed when other CARP members and its Manitoba chapter also raised objections.

That pushback from members meant CARP had to shift tactics. From personal attacks on me, CARP’s messaging changed to “we weren’t really partnering with Rothmans and we just thought it was an interesting question whether vaping is a way to help people stop smoking.” In a letter to members, they promised to give away Rothman’s money to a charity and that “CARP will no longer engage with tobacco companies or related entities.”

However,the explanation for why they took on Rothman’s as a client though, it doesn’t really make sense. If CARP had truly intended to inform seniors on the “interesting question” of whether vaping helps people quit cigarettes, an unscientific focus group obviously wouldn’t provide that answer—although it might help Rothmans gain recruits for its campaign against vaping regulation. Instead CARP could simply have asked a public health expert with no ties to Big Tobacco to summarize the many legitimate scientific studies that have already been done. The American Lung Association warns:

The Food and Drug Administration has not found any e-cigarette to be safe and effective in helping smokers quit.

CARP could also have done something that would actually help their members who struggle with nicotine addiction. They could have raised awareness about the hundreds of billions of dollars Big Tobacco owes Canadians for the decades of harm caused by their products, harm that continues to cost the Canadian health system $5.4 billion each year. The parent companies of Canadian tobacco subsidiaries have paid up in the U.S., with the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement netting state governments $206 billion over the first 25 years with $9 billion annual payments having to be made forever.

In Canada though tobacco companies have dug in their heels, applying for creditor protection that has stalled the lawsuits against them. Provincial governments are seeking $500 billion. Directed to smoking cessation programs, that money could provide the most effective programs possible and actually free Canadians from nicotine addiction.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for CARP to take on tobacco companies. As Margaret Brady wrote to CBC commenting on CARP’s response to irate members:”It doesn’t sound like he [Rudy Buttignol] thinks that they did anything wrong. And that he’s kind of surprised that everybody’s unhappy about it.” Time for CARP members to get the kind of leaders for their organization who will stop chasing corporate funding and really focus on CARP’s mandate of improving quality of life for seniors.

Note on vaping and nicotine: E-cigarettes expose vapers to a range of harmful substances. Nicotine, however it is consumed,  is highly addictive and increases the risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, and gastrointestinal disease as well as causing DNA damage and oxidative stress that can lead to cancer.  One e-cigarette can contain as much nicotine as a pack of cigarettes.  Other toxic substances that can be inhaled from e-cigarettes include: formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, arsenic, lead, nickel, tin, and aluminum.  These toxins can cause irreversible lung disease, damage to the cardiovascular system, and dramatically increase the risk of heart attacks.  Diacetyl, pentanedione and acetoin inhaled from e-cigarettes cause traumatic respiratory harm, including a syndrome called “popcorn lung”. EVALI, “e-cigarette product use associated lung injury”, is an umbrella diagnostic term for symptoms that can result in hospitalization or death caused by vaping: shortness of breath, fever and chills, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, rapid heartrate and chest pains.

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