USA: Oil Firms Fund 'Tobacco Terrorism'

Publisher Name: 
Anchorage Daily News

We interrupt our regularly scheduled sense of decency for the following heart-breaking news bulletin: A huge tobacco company is spreading disease across our state with help from Williams Alaska Petroleum and Tesoro Alaska.

These two Alaska oil companies are partnering with tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA in its nationwide campaign to collect the names and addresses of customers who buy cigarettes.

For months now, Phillip Morris has been quietly placing their agents in convenience stores throughout Alaska. When they spot a customer inside a 2-Go-Mart Tesoro or Williams Express buying smokes, they approach the person and offer a coupon, good for free cigarettes in exchange for permission to photocopy his or her driver's license.

"I'd have to consider these corporations partners in death and addiction," says Christie McIntire, head of the American Lung Association of Alaska. "They're distributing coupons for cancer."

McIntire's group is one of many public and private organizations that have long waged what I call "a war on tobacco terrorism." Remember how President Bush characterized the Sept. 11 terrorists? He said, "They hate our freedom." Well, tobacco terrorists hate our freedom, too. They hate our freedom from nicotine addiction and premature death. Big Tobacco makes big profits from this completely preventable epidemic that kills 400,000 Americans annually.

In 1998, in a $200 billion settlement with Big Tobacco, Alaska and 45 other states were trying to recoup states' costs to treat ill smokers. In exchange, the states would drop any legal claims against cigarette makers. Who would have thought that Big Tobacco would so boldly continue to hawk its deadly products? Instead, we find tobacco-terrorist "cells" operating in all 50 states. I think we should all be on high alert about this deadly threat.

"This is one of the few public health issues with a fully funded industry working against us," McIntire explains. "It's not as if you have someone advocating in favor of tuberculosis, for example, the way you have an industry promoting tobacco use."

Boardrooms of some of the world's most powerful corporations are directing the promotion in Alaska and nationwide of the only product that, when used exactly as prescribed, will kill you. They retain lawyers to insert slippery legalese into government deals. One would think that passing out "free" cigarettes in convenience stores would violate that landmark 1998 settlement.

Apparently not.

Even though the settlement's Section III(g) says tobacco companies cannot "distribute or cause to be distributed any free samples of Tobacco Products except in an Adult-Only Facility," subsequent language allows "free samples" because they are not really "free samples."

"They're definitely pushing it to the edge," said state Assistant Attorney General Doug Gardner, but the state won't intervene.

Big corporations might buy fancy legal cover, but we can fight these nicotine pushers and their corporate partners. We can express our outrage, first with Alaska companies who harbor tobacco terrorists. Call Jeff Cook, vice president for external affairs with Williams Alaska Petroleum Inc. in Fairbanks. Tell him what you think of his company's corporate citizenship. Tell him we don't want our young people addicted to lethal drugs like nicotine. Tell him we don't want tobacco-related health costs, already totaling $150 million a year, rising in Alaska.

"Their customers die, and they have to keep replacing them, and they usually do it with our children," says McIntire.

As we wage this "war on tobacco terrorism," we could certainly use the help of companies like Williams and Tesoro, who profit so handsomely from Alaska's natural resources, which mostly come from rural Alaska, where a whopping 42 percent of Alaska Native adults use tobacco (27 percent of Alaskans overall are users), according to the Alaska Cancer Registry.

Sadly, Williams and Tesoro seem to have lined up instead with those who sell addiction and disease for profit.

John Creed is a professor of journalism at Chukchi Campus, a branch in Kotzebue of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

AMP Section Name:Energy
  • 107 Energy
  • 109 Tobacco