After I pointed out
the rather cozy relationship between former Congressman Steve Buyer and former campaign donor RJ Reynolds
(NYSE:RAI) -- for whom Mr. Buyer advocated tirelessly while in office and is now employed by as a lobbyist -- an email arrived in strident rebuttal to my “misleading smear.”
The sender was one Bill Godshall, director of a group called Smokefree Pennsylvania. He took exception to my calling Steve Buyer’s 2009 comparison of smoking tobacco and smoking lettuce “specious,” writing: “If caffeine addicts obtained all or most of their caffeine by rolling up and smoking dried tea leaves, tens of millions of Americans would be dying from smoking tea leaf cigarettes. Would Rhorlich (sic) similarly mock and demonize people who truthfully point out that drinking caffeine (in teas, coffee, or sodas) is a far less hazardous way of obtaining caffeine, and that abstaining from caffeine was the only way to reduce diseases caused by smoking of dried tea leaves?”
Mr. Godshall maintained that Steve Buyer is, in fact, “advocating tobacco harm reduction (i.e., smokefree tobacco alternatives) for Reynolds,” which he described as “the most important public health campaign to save the lives of smokers (i.e., tobacco harm reduction).”
An intriguing position. But is it true?
Fifty Trillion Shades of Grey
As one might expect in such complicated matters, the answer is...sort of.
While Bill Godshall insisted to me,“These anti-tobacco extremists want nothing short of seeing all the tobacco companies go out of business,” the reality is quite a bit more nuanced.
Here’s how Kenneth Warner, a health economist at the University of Michigan, described
the competing interests at work to the New York Times
The one extreme are the folks who believe that no product containing nicotine or tobacco should be permitted on the market unless it has undergone review. The other extreme is to say that any product that superficially appears to be significantly less risky than cigarette smoking should be permitted on the market to allow consumers to have a less hazardous option.
The less hazardous option that Bill Godshall believes in is what the industry refers to as “smokeless” -- dip, snuff, and snus, as well as e-cigarettes. Godshall is near-evangelical in his passion for the stuff, as evidenced by our two-hour-and-ten-minute phone interview.
“The FDA’s real goal is to silence the freedom of speech of the tobacco companies,” Godshall told me. “It’s illegal for a tobacco company to say smokeless is 99% safer than cigarettes, which it is -- but that’s illegal, it’s a federal felony. The FDA’s position is that no tobacco product is less hazardous than any other tobacco product. My goal is to get 50% of people in America to switch, then the anti-tobacco extremists won’t be able to lie anymore: ‘Smokers need to do exactly what we tell them to do.’ The only way to quit is to use FDA-approved products but 90% of the people who have used them have failed? Quit or die, that’s their whole strategy. They don’t want to talk about harm reduction -- there’s not one harm reduction advocate in the federal government.”
To this, Danny McGoldrick
, Vice President for Research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
(an organization for whom Bill Godshall saves some of his most vitriolic commentary: “Prohibitionists who keep saying they ‘want to protect the children,’ even though 99% of all tobacco consumption in America is by adults, but whenever there’s a policy debate, the word ‘children’ is used in every single sentence”), says there’s nothing inherently wrong with the concept of harm reduction; it simply must be implemented appropriately and scientifically.
“We’re not closed to the idea of harm reduction, but it needs to be done in a regulated environment,” McGoldrick tells me. “Letting tobacco companies be the ones marketing harm reduction products is absolutely ridiculous. Remember the ‘light’ and ‘low-tar’ debacle? They were supposed to be ‘safer.’ Why start trusting them now?”
McGoldrick says that, in addition to the currently available cessation aids, like GlaxoSmithKline’s
(NYSE:GSK) Nicorette, e-cigarettes and the like “may be part of the answer one day,” but “there’s a path to do that in a responsible fashion.” Otherwise, he tells me, it’s a “recipe for absolute disaster.”
(McGoldrick also "begs to differ" with Kenneth Warner, saying in a follow-up email: "Promoting regulation to ensure that any modified risk claims in fact improve public health is hardly extreme and quite reasonably could be seen as falling squarely in the middle of the two extremes. It’s not just being on the market, it’s how you market the product. The FDA law was designed to not discourage innovation but to make sure new products and any claims made about them improve public health. That is why it provides a path for modified risk claims. It was passed by large majorities in both houses which doesn't happen with any bill these days, much less extreme ones.")
Big Tobacco Attempts an End-Around
Last month, Danny McGoldrick testified before the Public Health Committee of the Oklahoma House of Representatives on “evidence-based approaches to tobacco prevention and cessation in Oklahoma.” Once again, exposing Big Tobacco’s ulterior motives was the order of the day.
In recent months, tobacco companies and others have approached state health departments and state legislatures like yours to try to convince them to pursue harm reduction strategies using smokeless tobacco and other products. These proposals have included asking states to promote smokeless tobacco as less harmful than smoking, taxing smokeless tobacco at a lower rate, and even diverting tobacco prevention funding to this approach.
As you hear these proposals for states to do the bidding of tobacco companies, you should keep in mind some important points. The large cigarette companies, including Philip Morris, which now owns United States Smokeless Tobacco, and Reynolds American, which now owns American Snuff Company (formerly Conwood), are now in the smokeless business. It is rather unlikely that they actually want their smoking customers to quit using this highly profitable and addictive product. In fact, these harm reduction proposals come on the heels of some of the largest declines in cigarette consumption in history, so they are more likely an effort to keep customers and get new ones.
This theory is borne out by David Bishop, managing partner of Balvor LLC, a sales-and-marketing consultancy for convenience store retailers, in this month’s Convenience Store News
"Clearly, tobacco is not just about cigarettes anymore," Bishop says
Sales of “other tobacco products,” or “OTP,” have grown from 6.9% to 10.2% since 2002, due to “the continued decline in demand for cigarettes, as well as new product innovation in the OTP category.”
"You need to hang your hat elsewhere and even major manufacturers are hanging their hat elsewhere. You need to follow their lead,” agrees Mary Szarmach, vice president of trade marketing and government relations at Gasamat Oil Corp/Smoker Friendly, explaining that “cigarettes will no longer give retailers the dollars they need to survive.”
Obviously, the Philip Morrises
(NYSE:MO), RJ Reynoldses, Lorillards
(NYSE:LO), and British American Tobaccos
(AMEX:BTI) of the world are attempting to replace lost business with something else, under the guise of benevolence. However, as Danny McGoldrick testified in Oklahoma, if the tobacco companies “want to promote smokeless tobacco or anything else as a smoking cessation product, they can do this through the Food and Drug Administration like other cessation products by demonstrating with science that their products are a safe and effective way to quit smoking.
“If the evidence is anywhere near what they claim, this should not present a problem for them,” he told the panel of lawmakers. “And while they complain about the costs of doing so, they spend over $10 billion marketing their products and countless other dollars on lobbying and other efforts to stop those interventions that do work to reduce smoking. Even if they don’t have the money, a small price increase would easily bring in additional revenue. Every other smoking cessation product goes through this process; the makers of the products that kill people should bear at least this much responsibility.”
“The point,” McGoldrick tells me, “is that there is a process in place now to ensure that products marketed as reducing harm actually do so. By asking states to do this marketing for them, the companies are attempting an end-run around the FDA law.”
Follow the Non-Existent Money
Though Bill Godshall is fully in favor of smokeless tobacco products, he is vehemently against cigarettes.
“I went down to RJ Reynolds, pleading with them to develop and market new smokeless tobacco products,” he told me. “I’ve been urging them to be much more aggressive in marketing their products; I convinced them to run a full-page ad in the New York Times
urging smokers to switch to Camel snus for the new year.”
Naturally, this raises an important question: Who pays Bill Godshall for his advocacy work?
“Most of my money comes from me and my wife’s personal finances,” Godshall said. “Tobacco companies have offered me money, but I’ve never taken it. They can’t believe I’m giving them all these great ideas for free. I got into this field because of ethics and humanity, I was always taught to tell the truth and to be honest with the public and not deceive them. I spent 20 years going after the cigarette company executives for lying and misrepresenting the dangers of cigarette smoke and held them accountable in court, but now no one is holding these so-called public health agencies accountable. They are lying; it is outrageous. They are frauds, they’ve been covering up, lying, and misleading the public for the past 25 years about smokeless tobacco and now they’re afraid they’re going to get caught.”
Could it really be that Godshall’s is a personal crusade not financed at all by Big Tobacco?
One well-placed source in the public health community who spoke to me on condition of anonymity thinks so.
“Bill Godshall is a true believer,” the source says. “I really don’t think he’s been bought off by anyone; he’s not taking money from the tobacco companies. There's no smoking gun here -- I think he just really, really believes in what he’s doing.”
“I’ve been falsely accused many times,” Godshall told me. “Now that I’m doing harm reduction, the prohibitionists, moralists, they just want to ban it outright because it’s coming from a tobacco company.”
However, Danny McGoldrick just can’t wrap his head around the idea of Big Tobacco’s collective conscience telling it to guide people to smokeless for their health.
“Smokeless is not a safe alternative to smoking and there’s no evidence that people use smokeless tobacco to quit,” he says. “But if the data are so overwhelming, they can go to the FDA and get indication as a smoking cessation device,” he says. “If these companies are so convinced of this, why do they spend 18-times more money marketing cigarettes than they do marketing smokeless?”
However, says McGoldrick, “Considering cigarettes kill 400,000 people a year, they should really stop marketing them anyway.”
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @chickenalaking