Ever the advocate for the “forgotten man,” Donald Trump’s delegation to this month’s UN Climate Change Conference in Germany took on a thankless task no one else wanted (or needed) to do. Unable to immediately withdraw from the Paris accord, the White House instead sent a team to Bonn to greenwash the fossil fuels responsible for the climate crisis. Michael Bloomberg, UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and one of the people upholding “America’s Pledge” to fight climate change, likened the pro-coal spin to “promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.”
Bloomberg’s joke may have been more than an off-the-cuff quip. The fossil fuel industry is not the only one with inroads at the White House. As the former mayor is certainly aware, last year’s election was also a boon to the tobacco industry.
Cigarette manufacturers have directed three-fourths of their $57 million in campaign contributions since 1990 to Republicans. Several of those candidates have gone on to serve at the highest levels of the Trump administration. It’s a spectacular return on investment for tobacco companies, but a potentially catastrophic setback for public health.
The most notorious is Vice President Mike Pence, who received campaign contributions from tobacco corporations and spent a good part of his Congressional career defending the industry. In 2001, while cigarette smoking was causing 440,000 deaths each year, he famously wrote that “smoking doesn’t kill.” The bigger danger, so far as he saw it, was that tobacco control policies amounted to “big government.”
There is also Tom Price, Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services until September and a practicing physician who was just fine with smoking. It’s easy to understand why: Price owned about $37,000 of Philip Morris International (PMI) shares and received contributions from cigarette manufacturers. As a congressman, he voted against the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which mandated the Food and Drugs Administration regulate tobacco products.
Price is now gone, but Trump’s new Solicitor General Noel Francisco also spent years representing RJ Reynolds and other tobacco companies in litigation against attempts to regulate the industry. Then there’s Trump himself: the president’s investment portfolio has reportedly included stock from tobacco giant Altria Group — PMI’s new corporate name. Another big cigarette manufacturer, Reynolds American, channeled $1.5 million worth of donations to Trump’s inauguration.
None of this is ancient history. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (which Tom Price was in charge of) still names cigarette smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in the America. The Trump administration’s deep ties to the world’s biggest tobacco corporations should put public health advocates on notice. As with global warming, the White House is more than willing to subvert hard-earned gains to benefit industry allies.
That process is already underway. While climate talks were underway in Bonn, representatives at the International Labor Organization (ILO) a few hundred miles away in Geneva, Switzerland were at loggerheads over demands the UN agency cut its longstanding ties with the tobacco industry. Tobacco companies (ironically) fund the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) Foundation, which in turns supplies funding to the ILO and supports efforts to address “decent work deficits” and child labor in a number of tobacco-producing countries. The ILO has also partnered with Japan Tobacco International (JTI) on a public-private partnership (PPP) worth $10,114,200 in pursuit of eliminating child labor.
The ILO is under intense from civil society, member states, and other parts of the UN to sever ties with the tobacco industry. The UN Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) requries signatory governments and international bodies (like the European Union) to keep the tobacco industry out of their tobacco policies. The ILO isn’t a signatory, but it is part of the UN and is supposed to uphold the same principles. Critics of tobacco partnerships point out that accepting sponsorship from companies like JTI legitimizes the industry and recasts it as a productive contributor to important global initiatives.
Not everyone opposes the partnerships, though. While many of the ILO’s members want it to burn its bridges with the tobacco industry, a pro-tobacco bloc had emerged which includes several African countries… but also the United States.
Why are Trump administration officials lobbying for the tobacco industry in Geneva? For the same reason why they subjected themselves to ridicule on behalf of the coal industry in Bonn. For Trump, what matters is that the tobacco industry is a job creator. This is the same narrative Trump and his surrogates have sold to the Rust Belt. It doesn’t matter whether the jobs are hazardous, unhealthy, outdated, or unsustainable. Donald Trump loves “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!” – be they farming tobacco in North Carolina or mining coal in West Virginia.
Donald Trump may be the industry’s most natural ally, but he isn’t the only one. The African governments joining the US in stonewalling the ILO face tremendous pressue from Big Tobacco, which has used its clout to quash policies it deems inimical to growing smoking rates there. The European Union is one of the parties pushing for the end of ILO-tobacco partnerships, but the EU itself partners with the industry to fight cigarette trafficking. European officials stand accused of violating FCTC obligations to the industry’s benefit.
The future of those partnerships is still up in the air. Even now, European policymakers are considering allowing industry-backed technologies to “track and trace” cigarette packs. The proposal is controversial, but not just because of FCTC rules. Anti-tobacco campaigners point out that the tobacco industry itself is heavily implicated in smuggling. Involving them in efforts to stop trafficking amounts to having foxes guard your chickens.
At the ILO, at least, the industry has won out for now. To JTI’s delight, the organization has postponed resolving the issue pending an “integrated strategy” for solving tobacco labor issues. With political cover from the White House, the industry may enjoy the most international clout it has had in decades. And who knows? Bloomberg’s remarks about “promoting tobacco in a cancer summit” may prove prophetic.