Friday, March 22, 2013

Outsourcing Death for Profits

Linda Smith was a congressional member of the House of Representatives (R-WA) who represented Washington's 3rd district from 1995 to 1999. She had supported campaign finance reform and was only one of nine House Republicans who voted against confirming House Speaker Newt Gingrich in early 1997.

The short video clip below (which was edited from the PBS documentary "The People and the Power Game") shows Linda Smith, as a newcomer on the House floor, pleading against the lobbyists for Big Tobacco when Congress was preparing to vote on extending tobacco subsidies. "Please folks, do what's right, don't do what the tobacco industry wants."

She says in an interview, "There are tobacco lobbyists everywhere, at all the receptions, in the buildings around the capital..." --- Yes, just as there are lobbyists from all other industries on K Street, at all the receptions, in all the buildings around the capital --- influence peddling our elected leaders for special favors.

Halfway into the video you will hear the current Speaker of the House John Boehner admitting that congressional bribery has been going on for a long time. While at that time, as the House minority leader, Boehner was questioned about taking bribes from tobacco lobbyists in June of 1995, and then redistributing them to other congressional members on the House floor.

"They [the lobbyists] asked me to give out a half dozen checks, quickly, before we got to the end of the month --- and I complied. And I did it on the House floor, which I regret and should not have done. It's not a violation of the House rules, but it's a practice that‘s gone on here for a long time that we're trying to stop and I know that I'll never do it again."

The Republican minority leader had admitted that he handed out tobacco industry bribes on the floor of the House of Representatives in order to secure taxpayer subsidies for an industry that kills 443,000 Americans every year.

The New York Times had reported that John Boehner had maintained especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses, including Goldman Sachs, Google, Citigroup, MillerCoors, UPS, and the cigarette maker, R. J. Reynolds (Reynolds American), whose total lobbying expenditures last year was $3,400,188.

These lobbyists have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to John Boehner's campaigns, provided him with rides on their corporate jets, socialized with him at luxury golf resorts and partied with him at posh beachfront bashes. These lobbyists also led fund-raising efforts for his "Boehner for Speaker" campaign, which solicited checks of up to $37,800 each ( the maximum legally allowed).

After subsidizing the tobacco industry since the Great Depression, the federal government finally ended financial support in 2004, when the Equitable Tobacco Reform Act offered over $10 billion in buyouts to encourage tobacco farmers to switch to different crops. But the results have been surprising: In 2008 U.S. farmers still grew 805 tons of tobacco without a subsidy, compared to 882 tons that were subsidized by U.S. taxpayers in 2004. Bottom line: Tobacco is still a profitable cash crop, and without the government's or John Boehner's help (who always complains about "big government").

Although John Boehner may no longer be openly passing out money on the House floor, he and all the other members of Congress still take money from lobbyists to vote for legislation that's most favorable to corporate interests, rather than the people. Only now, since the publicity of Boehner's behavior on the House floor, are they just much more discreet.

And while America's Big Tobacco lobbyists were bribing members of our Congress on the House floor, they have also been very busy in other countries as well. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, an active global network of 160 reporters in more than 60 countries, have published a series on Big Tobacco's influence in down-and-out developing nations.

The ICIJ shows us how Big Tobacco has been outsourcing death to other countries for profits. With smoking rates leveling off in the U.S. and much of Europe, multi-national cigarette makers are focusing their lobbying efforts and political work on developing nations and emerging markets. These nations have provided Big Tobacco a rich source of new revenue.

Because what else are human beings (real people) to corporations but "revenue streams"?

"Smoke Screen" is the name of an investigation into the lobbying by the tobacco industry in developing nations and emerging markets, and debuted this week as government officials, anti-tobacco activists and industry representatives arrived in Punta del Este, Uruguay to measure progress on implementation of the World Health Organization’s "Framework Convention for Tobacco Control", the first international health treaty, crafted in 2003 and is now endorsed by 171 nations. (Philip Morris had a restraint-of-trade claim in international trade court against the government of Uruguay.)

Philip Morris International says it will continue to make its case to governments worldwide that are working to implement the international treaty that calls for limiting the role of the tobacco industry in how no-smoking advertising and excise-tax rules are shaped.

Implementation of the international treaty has come in fits and starts since it was first written. Some government officials and anti-tobacco activists blame the stutter-step implementation on industry interference with the process. Anne Edwards, director of external communications for Philip Morris International, says "The guidelines do not prohibit governments from involving tobacco companies in the legislative process."

The investigation Smoke Screen found that, in key countries, the tobacco industry has orchestrated hard-ball lobbying strategies such as distributing charitable gifts to pet causes of key political officials, and even threatening protracted legal action against governments with limited resources, such as Uruguay, Mexico, Indonesia, India, and even Russia.

----- Mexico -----

Mexico is home to the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim HelĂș. Forbes reports that his net worth is larger than the GDP of most Latin American countries. To put that in perspective, Bill Gates is worth around $67 billion and Slim is worth $67.2 billion.

He is also Latin America’s biggest tobacco baron, with a seat on the Philip Morris International board of directors and a stake in the company’s Mexican brands.

Like tobacco growers around the world, Mexican campesinos — farmers and farm workers — for years have been deployed by the tobacco companies to send a message to the public and politicians: Jobs are at stake in the effort by public health advocates to eliminate tobacco ads and limit smoking.

In Mexico there is a history of tobacco lobbyists successfully using farmers as counterweights during debates over cigarette taxes. The danger of losing jobs is a perennial argument against anti-tobacco legislation and tax increases. For decades it was an effective tool for lobbyists and lawmakers from tobacco regions. It was not until 2008 when the first tough anti-tobacco law was finally approved in Mexico. And only in 2010 did the nation’s most important excise tax finally take effect.

As the global fight over smokers moves from the United States and other countries where tobacco consumption is on the decline, Big Tobacco has drawn a line around developing nations that account for an increasingly important share of their revenues.

And from Jakarta in Indonesia to Mexico City, farmers have been reliable street-level lobbyists in the industry’s fight against smoking limits. Farmers say they’re defending their jobs, even though experts insist that the buying habits of multinational companies have more impact on the fortunes of growers than anti-tobacco rules designed by the World Health Organization --- or by public health officials, who seek to shrink the human and fiscal costs of tobacco-related disease.

Between 2005 and 2030, 135.1 million people will have died worldwide in developing nations because of smoking-related illness, according to the World Lung Foundation. Tobacco consumption is the globe’s leading preventable cause of death. An estimated 60,000 tobacco-related deaths are reported each year in Mexico, but the tobacco lobbyists march on.

----- Indonesia -----

Philip Morris International Inc.'s Chairman and Chief Executive Louis Camilleri earned $21.6 million last year according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The tobacco company also disclosed Chief Financial Officer Hermann Waldemer's pay totaled $11.7 million, while Chief Operating Officer Andre Calantzopoulos was paid $15.2 million. Both figures were up 34% from the prior year.

The Wall Street Journal reported that "strong demand in Asia has driven sales for the cigarette maker, which has helped boost earnings in recent quarters. The maker of brands such as Marlboro and L&M has sought to increase growth in emerging markets as volumes have slipped in more established European countries. All of the company's sales come from outside the U.S."

Indonesia smokers are so valuable that in 2005 Phillip Morris International paid more than $5 billion for 97-percent ownership of the Sampoerna brand...and in the Sampoerna family, Phillip Morris has an ally tied closely to Indonesia’s political and media leaders.

Indonesia does not appear ready to kick the cigarette habit. Anti-tobacco and health activists blame a combination of ineffective Indonesian politicians and the lobbying clout of global tobacco interests.

After decades of winning tobacco restrictions in the United States and other developed nations, now Indonesia must fight deep-pocketed multinational cigarette manufacturers in emerging markets and developing nations — regions that have grown to become the industry’s key source of new revenue.

Indonesia is one of the world’s last holdouts against signing the World Health Organization's treaty to limit the tobacco industry’s influence by restricting tobacco advertising and raising excise taxes. With a population of around 240 million and weak government regulations, Indonesia is one of Big Tobacco’s smoking giants

The Indonesian government has consistently refused to control tobacco advertisement. Indonesian legislators can’t even agree on enforcing their own, limited tobacco law — the 2009 Health Law that includes limited regulation of cigarette advertising. Anti-tobacco activists say this is because of Big Tobacco’s influence in all walks of Indonesian life, from politics to pop music and the media.

Around 200,000 people die each year in Indonesia because of smoking-related sickness.

----- India -----

Janaki Devi is a textbook example of a poor working woman who turn the wheels of one of India's most important industries, tobacco, for which she earns $1 a day rolling "bidis".

The bidi, which resembles a small marijuana cigarette, poses a big health risk for smokers and rollers. It contains more nicotine and tar than conventional cigarettes.

Devi is among the roughly six million women who roll bidis in India; their arduous profession is the second-largest labor-intensive occupation in the world’s second-largest tobacco market – a country where a quarter of the population is said to be addicted to various forms of tobacco.

Women constitute almost 75 percent of the total bidi workforce, which yields between 750 billion to 1.2 trillion sticks every year. The tobacco industry rides on a wave of significant political clout fueled by revenue of up to $20 billion annually, according to conservative estimates.

In the global struggle to check tobacco consumption – the world’s leading preventable cause of death – India has been a losing proposition for public health advocates because of the industry’s political influence and marketing muscle.

A probe by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found the "bidi" industry is insulated by its strong political connections against the best intentions of health activists and critics in the Indian government who want tougher regulations and higher taxes on the industry. Even more troubling: Executives of some leading bidi manufacturers themselves hold government offices.

As a result, public health campaigns have yet to gain traction in India; taxes on bidi products are low and regulations lax. Amit Sarkar, a veteran tobacco analyst, says: “The bidi market will continue to grow as long as the lobbyists are able to fill the coffers of politicians.”

In 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 3 percent of high-school boys in the United States had tried bidis. The trend is enough to lead one major bidi maker to gloat on its website that its products are “increasingly popular in the United States and Europe” – markets that have become more important for the company, which makes 20 billion bidis a year and employs 150,000 people in India.

Each year close to 1 million deaths related to tobacco disease are recorded in India

----- Russia -----

Igor Kesaev runs the multifaceted Mercury Group, with interests in everything from weapons manufacturing to real estate. Now he’s also Russia’s cigarette king, with an unprecedented 70-percent share of the distribution business, selling the popular brands of some of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International.

Last fall Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin outlined a new policy for reducing smoking: tobacco advertising will be totally prohibited in 2012; there will be no smoking inside some public buildings and on public transportation; and by 2015, excise taxes can go up 10 times the current levels. This, the government has said, helps Russia comply with the World Health Organization’s international treaty on tobacco control.

Around the world, anti-tobacco activists are gaining ground against Big Tobacco, pushing tough new controls in many countries. But nations like Russia pose a challenge because of their ample smoking populations, potential legions of new smokers, and governments that have appeared to be open to the influence of skilled lobbyists.

Per-capita smoking in Russia is among the highest in the world. Russia is the world’s fourth-largest tobacco consumer — behind China, the U.S., and Japan — burning an estimated 400 billion cigarettes each year. According to the World Health Organization, some 44 million people smoke in Russia, 39 percent of the adult population. According to the Public Chamber of Russia, an oversight agency, smoking kills about 400,000 Russians each year.

----- In conclusion -----

All members of Congress should have a life-time ban from ever taking a lobbying job, or working for any industry or company that they specifically wrote legislation for --- such as John Boehner working as a vice president for a tobacco company if he ever retires --- or is ever voted out of office.

The Center for Disease Control reports that worldwide, tobacco use causes more than 5 million deaths per year, and that current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030.

Global health statistics put numbers behind the smoking trend between 2005 and 2030: 175 million people will have died because of tobacco-related illnesses. Developing nations will account for 77 percent of those deaths.

Do you remember the lawsuits against the Big Tobacco companies--- and how all the CEOs had lied? American-based multi-national corporate conglomerates (according to the U.S. Supreme Court) are "people", so I suggest that all those tobacco corporations be arrested and put on trial for genocide --- for outsourcing death for profits. But how do you kill a corporation if it gets the death penalty?

* This was also posted at the Daily Kos

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