In Phone Calls To Residents, Philip Morris Is Pushing Against D.C.’s Ban On Flavored Tobacco
A group operated by tobacco giant Philip Morris has been calling D.C. residents in recent days, urging them to contact the D.C. Council to oppose a coming ban on the sale of flavored tobacco and menthol cigarettes.
The calls have been coming from Citizens for Tobacco Rights, which is directly linked to Philip Morris. A recipient of the call who asked to remain anonymous to avoid potential repercussions related to their job, tells DCist/WAMU that the call included a survey and a prompt for residents to call lawmakers to urge them against “spending our tax dollars” to enforce the ban.
“I told them I supported the ban and that cigarettes kill millions of people, for what it is worth,” said the recipient of the call.
Another recipient of the call, Alex Dodds of the progressive political group DC for Democracy, tweeted they were urged to “oppose D.C.’s unfair ban on flavored tobacco.”
The calls come as the council prepares to cast a second and final vote next Tuesday on the city’s 2023 budget, which includes funding to start enforcing the bill passed last year. That measure, known as the Flavored Electronic Smoking Device Prohibition Amendment Act of 2021, prohibits the sale of flavored tobacco and menthol cigarettes in D.C., with an exception carved out for hookah bars. It also bans the sale of electronic smoking devices within one quarter mile of a middle school or high school.
The bill became law in October, but enforcement has been delayed because the mayor and council have to account for its $13.8 million four-year price tag, coming from a loss of revenue from sales of the products and the cost of actually enforcing the bans. Should the council give final approval next week to the budget, enforcement would start Oct. 1.
The ban will put D.C. alongside a growing number of states and localities taking action against flavored tobacco products and electronic cigarettes. Additionally, last month the Food and Drug Administration proposed rules banning menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, saying they “have the potential to significantly reduce disease and death from combusted tobacco product use, the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., by reducing youth experimentation and addiction, and increasing the number of smokers that quit.”
Still, the council’s debate of the bill last year was complex and nuanced, with some lawmakers and the council’s own Office of Racial Equity raising concerns that the enforcement of any ban could disproportionately impact Black and brown residents and businesses. (The office’s analysis did note, though, that advertising for menthol cigarettes has predominantly targeted Black communities.)
“Enforcement of minor violations has often been the pretext with catastrophic encounters with law enforcement for residents like Eric Garner and George Floyd,” said Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), one of three lawmakers to vote against the bill.
On its website, Citizens for Tobacco Rights says a better tool would be a ban on sales of tobacco to anyone under the age of 21, which is already the law in D.C. The group — which did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday morning — also says bans on flavored tobacco and menthol cigarettes could create a black market for them.
“When states or localities ban flavors for adults, they could be making matters worse. There is already a large black market in tobacco products, mainly because taxes are so high. Bans that prohibit adults 21 and older from buying the products they want will just lead to an even larger black market, where the products are made by bootleggers. That is not good for public health,” says the website.
“We are not surprised by Big Tobacco’s last-ditch effort to try to stop D.C. leaders from putting the health of our community members ahead of their profits. Funding for the law is supported by more than 70 community and public health organizations here in D.C.,” said Josh Brown, campaign manager of the Flavors Hook Kids D.C. campaign. (The campaign raised some eyebrows of its own last fall with mailers that prominently featured Mayor Muriel Bowser on them, almost resembling a re-election campaign ad.)
This isn’t the first time that a large targeted industry has pushed back on D.C. legislation. In 2019, soda manufacturers launched a campaign to fight a proposed bill that would have imposed a new tax on sugary drinks. The bill died last year amidst organized opposition