Big Tobacco dodges financial bullet

By: By Bill Smith - Contributing columnist

In 2006, the courts determined that United States tobacco companies would begin running ads admitting that cigarettes are addictive and that smoking kills. Eleven years later, this act is finally unfolding.

Last Sunday ads were run in 50 newspapers and there will be commercials run on the national broadcasts. So how did Big Tobacco turn this lemon into lemonade? By dragging for over a decade, the whole media world evolved. The messages are meant to prevent people from initiating the smoking habit — which generally means a younger audience — and a sizable percentage of them don’t read newspapers or watch commercial television, so the target audience is missed.

The messages are clear: “More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined.” Or how about “Cigarette companies control the impact and delivery of nicotine in many ways, including designing and selecting cigarette paper to maximize the ingestion of nicotine, adding ammonia to make the cigarette taste less harsh, and controlling the physical and chemical make-up of the tobacco blend” and “Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for SIDS, acute respiratory infections, ear problems, severe asthma, and reduced lung functions.” Again, these type ads will be running for the next full year, funded by your local tobacco manufacturer.

But, these costs are really only minor collateral damage to doing business. Just how much money do those corporations have?

Here is a limited view into their wealth: In 1998 a Master Settlement was reached including 46 states (North Carolina was one) and the tobacco industry. In doing so, states agreed not to individually sue the companies for medical costs attributable to tobacco use that they were now having to pay for, many through Medicaid or subsidies to health systems. In 2015, North Carolina received $139 million and the whole United States received $7.126 billion. That would seem like some real money, but wait, the agreement is good through 2025; thus meaning over a 30-year period, the tobacco companies will have paid out $206 billion. Remember now, this is what the companies offered up, so this had a minor impact on their bottom line or they would not have provided it.

North Carolina, like most states, put little to none of this money in preventing people from smoking, but just used this as another funding stream to be spent as it pleased. So the cycle will continue unimpeded.

By Bill Smith

Contributing columnist

Bill Smith is the director of the Robeson County Health Department.

Bill Smith is the director of the Robeson County Health Department.