If you’re wondering why President Donald Trump deputized Pence instead of a team of pandemic experts specially trained to handle this sort of thing, there’s a good chance it’s linked to Trump’s dismantling of the Obama-era pandemic response team two years ago.
In light of Pence’s weighty new responsibility, it’s worth revisiting his track record on health policy as a politician in Indiana. That includes downplaying the risk of cigarettes (while accepting campaign cash from tobacco companies) and failing to act after an HIV testing center he defunded closed, leading to the worst HIV outbreak in state history.
“Time for a quick reality check,” Pence wrote in an op-ed that BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski dug up in 2015. “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”
Pence’s backward views weren’t a product of the times: The Republican penned those words about 20 years ago ― BuzzFeed reported the publication date as 2000, though The New York Times put it at 1998. In either case, it happened more than 50 years after Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry wrote the landmark report on smoking and health that started America’s smoking decline.
“Two out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and nine out of 10 smokers do not contract lung cancer,” Pence went on. It’s not clear which data Pence was referencing, but his premise is wrong.
Smoking certainly kills. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, cigarettes account for 30% of all cancer deaths and kill more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns and illegal drugs combined. Beyond cancer, smoking damages almost every organ in the body, including the lungs, heart, blood vessels, reproductive organs, mouth, skin, eyes and bones.
Today, 14% of Americans smoke, down from more than 40% in 1965, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During a 2000 congressional debate, Pence said the scientific link between smoking and lung cancer wasn’t the point of his editorial.
Indeed, Pence was writing in the larger context of condemning a government that is concerned with safeguarding against public health issues like tobacco use. But regardless of context, minimizing the danger of smoking is a dangerous tactic. And it wasn’t the first or last time Pence took a pro-tobacco stance.
Pence’s policy in Indiana was decidedly pro-tobacco
First in congress and then as governor, Pence made a string of pro-tobacco choices. Over his political career, he has also taken more than $100,000 in campaign donations from tobacco companies.
In 2009, Pence was one of 97 members of the House of Representatives who voted against the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which added new warnings discouraging minors from smoking and allowed Congress to regulate tobacco.
In 2015, during Pence’s one-term Indiana governorship, he signed a bill to loosen the terms of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act by allowing new cigar bars to open.
And in 2016, Pence fought a bill passed by Indiana Republicans to improve roads that would have raised the cost of gas by a few cents and the cost of cigarettes by $1 per pack. The bill passed without the tax increase.
To date, Indiana has one of the lowest cigarette tax rates in the country.
In his op-ed, Pence posed a question to his readers. “What is more harmful to the nation, second hand smoke or back handed big government disguised in do-gooder healthcare rhetoric[?]”
Shirking public health responsibility in the name of small government is familiar territory for Pence. In 2015, Pence delayed instituting a clean needle exchange in Scott County, Indiana, after the county’s only HIV testing center closed.
That turned out to be a costly public health failure: Under the Indiana governor’s watch, HIV rates spiked in Scott County, reaching nearly 200 new cases and earning it the honor of worst HIV outbreak in state history.
This article has been updated throughout in light of Pence’s appointment to “coronavirus czar.”