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The Changing Environment of Tobacco

The landscape surrounding tobacco was not changing merely in California. By New Year's Day 1998, tobacco was a highly visible issue in American politics. President Bill Clinton allowed his Food and Drug Administration to assert jurisdiction over tobacco products as drug delivery devices. Forty-one states had sued the tobacco industry for defrauding the public out of billions of dollars that taxpayers had spent to treat sick smokers; the states would soon force the tobacco industry to pay $200 billion to reimburse them for part of those costs.[1] Thousands of individuals sued the industry and some won. The industry was being forced to accept controls—albeit limited—on its advertising practices. Millions of pages of previously secret tobacco industry documents were made public, first in print,[2-7] then on the Internet and in a depository created from the documents that Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III of Minnesota forced the tobacco industry to make public. These documents showed that the tobacco industry had known for decades that nicotine is addictive and that smoking causes a wide variety of diseases. They also demonstrated how the tobacco industry used its considerable public relations, legal, and political muscle to hide this information from the public and the courts. Later in 1998 Congress had a rancorous debate over whether to enact national tobacco control legislation that put some restrictions on the tobacco industry in exchange for giving it legal immunity. In the end, Congress strengthened public health provisions of the proposed legislation to the point that the tobacco industry and its political allies killed it.

This burst of activity reflected the groundwork that had been laid over the previous two decades by tobacco control activists who had been working all over the United States to change how people viewed the tobacco industry and its behavior. Beginning in the 1980s, California activists, led by Hanauer and Loveday, created hundreds of city and county ordinances to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke and otherwise restrict the tobacco industry by working through their city and county officials. These local activists created strong public support for tobacco control policies. Even so, the tobacco industry continued to dominate the California Legislature, where tobacco control policies had scant support.

But in 1988 activists from the environmental movement and the American Lung Association and American Cancer Society reacted to this legislative impasse by creating the largest and most innovative program


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in the world through the initiative process, by which voters enact a law by popular vote. California voters enacted an initiative known as Proposition 99, which increased the tobacco tax by twenty-five cents a pack and devoted 20 percent of the money raised to fund a tobacco control program. Virtually overnight, California's investment in tobacco control went from almost nothing to over $100 million a year in schools, communities, and counties and at the state level. In addition, nearly $20 million a year was available to California researchers to conduct tobacco-related research. These programs dwarfed anything that any other state or the federal government had ever done on tobacco.

Far from running a traditional “smoking will kill you” campaign, the California effort viewed tobacco as a social and political problem and went after the tobacco industry directly and aggressively. The network of local tobacco control advocates that Proposition 99 created lit the afterburners on the nonsmokers' rights movement. Communities started passing clean indoor air and other tobacco control ordinances so fast that it was hard to keep track of them all. The culture around tobacco was changing. The initial results of the California campaign were nothing short of amazing: it tripled the rate of decline in tobacco use.[8] Unfortunately for the public health, the tobacco industry appreciated that this campaign was costing it billions of dollars in lost sales and mobilized to divert the money from tobacco control and to constrain the program to ineffective strategies. Nevertheless, the California experience shows that it is possible to rapidly reduce tobacco consumption if the political will is there to do it.

The tobacco industry was not alone in its efforts to divert money from tobacco control programs. Organized medicine and other constituencies that wanted more money spent on medical services for the poor spearheaded the lobbying effort to redirect money into medical services. Politicians in both parties were happy to do the industry's bidding in exchange for campaign contributions or because of a common ideological position.[9-11] In 1994, after several years of rapid reductions in tobacco use, the industry brought this progress to a halt.[12]

For public health advocates, success in political arenas required that they set aside the conciliatory tactics they had relied on in the past and learn to be more confrontational in dealing directly with the tobacco industry. However, they were less willing to confront the industry's surrogates, especially organized medicine or powerful politicians.

While the story of tobacco control in California reflects the individuals and organizations who were involved, the story is relevant


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everywhere. The tobacco industry's efforts to influence state and local programs are controlled nationally, and the patterns in California have reappeared wherever public health advocates try to clean the air or control the tobacco industry. As a new century begins, more and more states are implementing large-scale tobacco control programs, often through dedicated tobacco taxes or as parts of settlements of lawsuits with the tobacco industry. Massachusetts was the first state to follow California, when voters there passed Question 1 in 1992; Arizona was next in 1994, followed by Oregon in 1996.[13-17] Other states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Maine, created tobacco control programs through the legislative process, and Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and Mississippi, among others, did so through legal settlements with the tobacco industry.


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