Mark Oliver is an investigative journalist at KSL news radio - Northland Vapor Company

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Mark Oliver is an investigative journalist at KSL news radio

May 24, 2019

Mark Oliver is an investigative journalist at KSL news radio

and he has been digging pretty deeply into the four separate federal bills that were introduced last month to increase the legal smoking age to 21, and he has found evidence linking all but one of them to Altria.

According to him there are records that show that Altria hired a lobbyist firm specifically to convince Mitch McConnell to put through a Tobacco to 21 law. They also hired another firm to convince lawmakers to support a different Tobacco to 21 bill that is now co-sponsored by Mitt Romney. The evidence suggests that these federal Tobacco to 21 bills are intended to be ineffective and, in at least one case, uses language that would relax FDA restrictions on Altria's e-cigarettes and eLiquids, making it easier for them to market them to kids.

He did an AMA on reddit the other day, and if you don't know what an AMA is it's basically an interview on the internet, where the question askers can be anyone.  I thought it would be fun to pull the most upvoted questions and his replies on the matter. If you don't know what reddit is I can't recommend it, but here is the link to the AMA in question. 

Q: If the bills are intended to be weak/ineffective, how is this being accomplished? What, specifically, would their weaknesses be?

A: The bills supported by McConnell and Romney literally don't do anything but put the legal smoking age up to 21.

Dr. Ruth Malone believes these bills are intended to stop the growing trend of tough, state laws against e-cigarettes by giving the battle against teen vaping a sort of "Mission Accomplished" banner that doesn't really affect teen smoking rates.

Admittedly, that's conjecture -- but the biggest proof supporting it is Project Sunrise, a leaked strategy from when the company was called Philip Morris. Their internal memos specifically outline a strategy to "minimize the effectiveness of the anti-tobacco industry" by focusing the conversation on "youth access to tobacco" instead of marketing bans.

Q: Where does the science currently stand on eCigarettes? What has the anti-smoking industry’s response been to these developments?

A: Tobacco companies generally promote e-cigarettes as "lower risk" alternatives to mainstream tobacco products, and it's generally accepted that they are less harmful than cigarettes.

Anti-tobacco advocates got really worried about them in 2018, when, after twenty years of steady declines in teen nicotine use, teen e-cigarettes use increased by 78%.

Most still like e-cigarettes as a lower risk alternatives for adults, but they're unhappy that they're seeing teens who didn't smoke before taking up the habit.

Q: "The evidence suggests that these federal Tobacco to 21 bills are intended to be ineffective and, in some cases, have language that would relax FDA restrictions on Altria's e-cigarettes, making it easier for them to market them to kids." What is your evidence of this?

A: Long answer. Apologies in advance.

Rep. Aderholt's Bill: One federal Tobacco to 21 bill, proposed by Rep. Robert Aderholt, snuck in a legal definition of "vapor product" that would have kept Altria's newest e-cigarette, iQOS, from being classified as a cigarette.'

Tobacco-Free Kids very quickly pointed this out and Aderholt's bill got a lot of bad press. It's unlikely that bill will pass.

These are called "Trojan Horse" bills, and they're not a new idea. Last year, Texas Congressman Tom Cole snuck a provision into an Appropriations bill that exempted "premium cigars" from FDA regulations. 

McConnell and Romney's Bills:

The other two bills are more complicated, so bear with me here through a long answer.

About one week after Aderholt's bill was exposed, Mitch McConnell announced his bill - which again got bad press and was associated with Altria.

Two weeks after that, Utah Republicans Romney and Stewart announced their support for a third bill.

Altria lobbied in support of both of those bills. They're pretty much identical - they raise the legal age to 21 and literally don't do anything else.

Tobacco Policy expert Ruth Malone believes that McConnell's is a continuation of an old Altria strategy called "Project Sunrise".

Essentially, the strategy outlined in that memo is to support and help put through what they call "moderate" tobacco control campaigns and legislation. They specifically say, in the memo, that they should focus on laws and campaigns that focus on "youth access to tobacco" to keep the conversation away from "bans on advertising".

This, Malone says, is because:

They don't really affect tobacco sales -- 90% of smokers start before they're of legal age
They distract the conversation away from more effective measures like marketing regulations
They get people talking about tobacco as something "for adults", which appeals to kids.
15 state Tobacco to 21 laws have been passed in the last year, and some of them include rules against e-cigarette flavors and marketing practices -- things that'll actually affect Altria's ability to sell to kids.

If McConnell or Romney's bills get passed, it's expected to stop the trend of states enacting tougher laws that'll actually affect their sales. It's likely that they'll also work as "mission accomplished" that'll kill out the fervor for some other bills that would increase FDA regulations on e-cigarette flavors and marketing practices.

They'll last for a while, too. On average, studies say, it takes 17 years to get a weak law replaced.

Incidentally, the lobbyists hired to support these bills were simultaneously asked to push for lighter FDA restrictions on e-cigarettes or exemptions for Altria's products. Unlike Aderholt's bill, we haven't seen those requests worked directly into these bills, but we could see that request granted in other, less obvious ways.

Frank Pallone's Bill

The fourth bill proposed last month was presented by Frank Pallone, and it's just a great example of what Altria's trying to keep from getting passed.

It's tough -- it bans e-cigarette flavors, limits marketing practices, and does a lot of other stuff Altria doesn't want to see happen.

It's also the only federal Tobacco to 21 bill they haven't publicly supported and that we can't link to them in any way.

Q: Serious question: Do you feel like you’re perpetuating a media bias when you single out a republican (Mitch McConnell) in your AMA title, even though this is a bi-partisan bill co-sponsored by a Democrat (Tim Kaine)?

A: That's a fair question and point. That wasn't my intention. I named McConnell and Romney because they're well-known names that I believed would attract more attention.

You are right, however, that all of these bills have bi-partisan support, and this isn't a Republican / Democrat issue.

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