(Editor’s Note: In March 1994, ABC killed the “Turning Point” documentary that follows. ABC Executive Vice President Paul Friedman called “Tobacco Under Fire” a “boring” rehash. We disagree. Even two years later, the tape presents significant news breaks. The MoJo Wire invites you to decide yourself.)
[fade in] [PSA showing man smoking and playing with his young son]
Narrator: You are watching a public service announcement that warns parents about a new health risk to children. It was just a year ago that the EPA released a landmark study that proves cigarette smoking harmed non-smokers too.
Conference speaker: Smoke from the burning end of the cigarette contains over 4,000 chemicals and 40 carcinogens, including formaldehyde, cyanide…
Narrator: Here in San Jose, California — one of hundreds of cities trying to ban indoor smoking — the EPA study has given tobacco’s opponents the ammunition they have been waiting for.
[speaker] The EPA has said second-hand tobacco smoke is a Class-A carcinogen…
Narrator: Surprisingly, no one from the tobacco companies came to defend their products, but there was opposition to the proposal.
[woman] I represent an organization called Californians for Smokers Rights.
Narrator: Opposition both well-funded and well-organized, and Councilman Jim Bell believes the tobacco industry’s involvement is undeniable.
Bell: These groups are funded by the tobacco lobby, definitely.
[Gallagher] The EPA just came out with a recommendation that you shouldn’t smoke in your house. I mean what’s left? They’re now telling you you can’t smoke in your house.
Narrator: Elizabeth Gallagher is a lobbyist for R.J.R. Tobacco. Across the country, smoker’s rights organizing sessions like this one are being paid for by tobacco companies. “Turning Point” had to use a hidden camera because the media is not invited.
[Gallagher] Believe me, there’s been extensive research on how to get to you guys…
Narrator: These meetings are designed to encourage individual smokers to speak out for tobacco interest. They preach about the civil rights of smokers. But the sign outside the room confirms whose interests are really at stake.
[cut to sign that reads: “RJR Business Seminar.”]
[Gallagher] A politician will not listen to you if they think all you are is a mouthpiece for the tobacco companies. Your only prayer is being independent, appearing independent, and for that reason, we don’t get directly involved with organizing you guys.
[woman] You non-smokers should be thanking us for smoking. After all, the excessive taxes we pay on tobacco products are paying your way. Thank you.
Narrator: Jack Anderson supports the ban on indoor smoking. He smoked for 30 years.
Anderson: I have asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. I think back now, I can still, I can still taste that lousy cigarette.
Narrator: Jack started smoking in the Navy with the help of the U.S. government.
Anderson: They were made available to us at six cents a package. How could you miss? For cheap entertainment for them, under the guise of providing something for the lonely GI, was kind of a nice gesture for them. Right? But, you know, it’s ironic that they were selling death so cheap… Weren’t they?
Narrator: Back in World War I, before anyone knew about the dangers of smoking, cigarettes were distributed to every doughboy. To reduce the stress on the boys in the trenches, General Pershing demanded priority shipment of cartons to the front. They got them there any way they could. When the war ended, there was an epidemic in the making. Cigarette consumption among men rose over 600 percent. By World War II, cigarettes were accepted as a critical part of GI Joe’s gear.
[newsreel] But civilians face smokeless days. No cigarettes at the corner store. The big question is: Do our soldiers have smokes?
Narrator: Everyone knew the answer. Plenty of smokes, as much as they wanted.
[newsreel] …cigarettes and cigars, and pipe tobacco galore. There is no shortage…
Narrator: And lung cancer rates among men began to soar.
[newsreel] …yes the boys are getting cigarettes, the world’s best morale builders…
Narrator: After the war, cigarette smoking steadily increased until 1964. That’s when Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry announced the results of his exhaustive study of the health effects of smoking.
[Terry] …The principal factor of lung cancer in this country was cigarette smoking. If we are to be successful in this country in our program against the smoking of cigarettes, it is going to depend upon our success in appealing to the youth of this country.
Narrator: It’s been 30 years since Surgeon General Terry began his campaign to warn children about the dangers of smoking. How ambitious an effort has it been? Well, last year Congress spent $1 million on an anti-smoking media campaign. Tobacco companies spent $4 billion on promotion. Why didn’t the surgeon general just crack down on cigarettes in 1964? The reason is simple: the surgeon general doesn’t control national health policy, Congress does. Astonishingly, to this very day, Congress has never given authority to any federal health agency to regulate the sale or use of the nation’s number one health hazard.
Greg Connolly: Every major piece of federal legislation passed since the first Surgeon General’s report that protects health and safety, has specifically excluded the cigarette–Consumer Products Safety Act, Controlled Substances Act, Federal Hazardous Substances Act. Why? Because the tobacco industry has bought off Congress. Rather than doing something about the problem since 1964, Congress has turned their back on the problem. And the reason is, the tobacco industry has money, and it’s got a lot of money.
Narrator: Today, the tobacco industry is spending its money to fight their biggest challenge ever, President Clinton’s commitment to pay for his health plan with a huge tax on tobacco. And the industry is using its best weapons to lobby Capitol Hill. Jerry Jenkins and Don Anderson are the shock troops of the tobacco industry’s counterattack. But they don’t work for a big cigarette company; both are third-generation tobacco farmers. Just like smokers’ rights groups, the industry has always relied heavily on farmers to put a human face on tobacco issues. The opposition is also working the halls of Congress, only this lobbyist comes from a tobacco state too. Ann Northup is a legislator from Kentucky.
Northup: Tobacco companies get something they really need from Kentucky besides Kentucky burley, they get 60,000 family farmers to influence Congress not to pass excise taxes or any health provisions that would discourage smoking. That’s what Philip Morris and the other tobacco companies really get from Kentucky.
Narrator: Back home where tobacco is a billion dollar crop, Ann Northup is considered a heretic. She believes that the only way Kentucky farmers can survive is if they stop growing tobacco.
[man speaking at Congressional hearing] I am proud to be a tobacco farmer, a part of the two percent of our nation’s population that provides food and fiber for the other 98 percent.
Narrator: Ann Northup wants to use part of the proposed tax to help tobacco farmers convert to other crops. She is convinced the market for American-grown tobacco is drying up.
[Northup] …I believe it has to and I believe that we need to do something so that there will be life after tobacco for these farmers. They are worth saving, Mr. Chairman.
Donnie Gedling: Tobacco is a way of life in Kentucky. Tobacco pays the bills for the schools, for the church dues, for the taxes–it’s a tradition, a 200-year tradition. God made Kentucky for burley tobacco and that’s what we do best.
Narrator: Donnie Gedling grows what he calls the best burley tobacco in the world. Gedling and most Kentucky farmers are dead set against the cigarette tax.
Gedling: If you talk in terms of 50 cents a pack, we’re not going to last as long as a June frost. The tobacco farmer — in the Carolinas, and Kentucky, Virginia — would be finished.
Narrator: Donnie Gedling is not just any country farmer. He is also a state legislator and chairman of Kentucky’s Tobacco Task Force, whose job it is to protect tobacco growers. These lawmakers have been convinced that Clinton’s proposed health tax will ruin them.
[speaker at meeting] For you to tax something so heavily that a person will not buy it because you don’t like that product is an absolute misuse of Congressional power.
Northup: The Tobacco Task Force sort of epitomizes the old school of thought on tobacco. You know, it’s people who have been in office, they’ve been friends of the people that represent the tobacco companies. That becomes the only source of reality to them.
Narrator: But the reality is, the amount of Kentucky burley sold over the past few years has been steadily dropping, and Northup, an economist by training, says the anti-smoking movement is not the reason.
Northup: What I found was that the tobacco farmers’ market wasn’t related at all to what the health community was doing. It’s totally related to what the tobacco companies are doing, and the tobacco companies are going overseas.
Narrator: This may look like the rolling hills of Kentucky, but it’s not. This is Rio Grande do Sul in Southern Brazil. The climate here is almost identical to Kentucky. Its major crop? Burley tobacco. In Kentucky, farmers are held to strict quotas on how much burley they can grow and what price they can sell it for, but that’s not true overseas. In Brazil, farmers can sell as much tobacco as they can grow, as fast as they can grow it. And their crop sells for half the price of the same burley from Kentucky.
Northup: What we know is that the tobacco companies are directly and/or indirectly subsidizing foreign farmers. They are helping them clear thousands of acres of jungles, build very inexpensive farms, promising them a market, and helping these farmers grow high quality tobacco overseas, and that’s what’s replacing the Kentucky burley crop.
Reporter: What are those?
Gedling: Tobacco seeds.
Reporter: From where?
Reporter: But what does KY-14 mean?
Gedling: That’s Kentucky, Kentucky burley. That’s interesting.
Reporter: What does that say to you?
Gedling: That says to me that they’re growing Kentucky burley in Brazil. (QuickTime video, 2.4 mb) These are the same seed that grew this burley. Kentucky-14 grows the best tobacco in Kentucky, not in Brazil.
Northup: The tobacco interests have so indoctrinated the tobacco legislators and the tobacco farmers that they refuse to believe–you can lay out all the evidence in front of them, and they refuse to believe what it all points to is really going to happen.
Narrator: In Rio Grande do Sul, the air is filled with the smoke of burley farmers clearing land. And they are not alone. The same is happening in Malawi, Guatemala, Argentina, and other countries. In just three years, American tobacco companies have imported 225,000 tons of foreign burley.
Gedling: We’re at the mercy of those folks, but maybe, maybe just maybe they are at our mercy too for the quality that we have. They say they are. I don’t know that, but they say they are. I hope they are.
Narrator: Since 1990, the major tobacco companies have been slowly cutting back on buying American. While in Kentucky, some of the state’s highest quality burley is piling up in warehouses.
[fade out to commercial]