Still Blowing Smoke for Big Tobacco: John Boehner and College Ethics

Former Speaker of the House John Boehner chain smokes Camel cigarettes.

As Speaker, he was one of the tobacco industry’s most reliable friends in Congress.

In 1996, he was caught handing out checks from tobacco lobbyists to his colleagues on the floor of the House while the House was in session.

Now retired, Boehner sits on the board of Camel maker Reynolds American.

Which is all quite predictable.

Chain smoker, friend of Big Tobacco, sits on the board.

Given that background though, what is a bit creepy is that Boehner was hired recently to give the keynote address to thousands of young students attending the annual College Ethics Symposium last month in Hilton Head, South Carolina.

The mission of the College Ethics Symposium is “to foster ethical decision making by utilizing Christian and moral values.”

For example, the symposium teaches seven ethical duties from the life and teaching of Jesus, including ethical duty number five — “strive for health, healing, and wholeness in oneself and for others.”

A college student who attended the symposium and who asked not to be named, is a sophomore at a West Virginia college that participates in the program.

He was the leader of one of the break-out student groups.

The group got together and decided to ask Boehner a question about the morality of his board membership at a big tobacco company.

The students decided that after Boehner’s keynote, during the question and answer session, they would ask Boehner  — “”After having been in an elected position of high political power, how do you morally justify working on behalf of Reynolds American?”

“We were all in groups of six to eight students, each with a moderator,” the student said.

“I presented the question to my group. They loved it.”

But the moderator said he thought there were two questions — first, is it ethical to promote tobacco products?

And second, is it ethical to lobby after having been elected to a position of political power?

The West Virginia college student says now, looking back on it, the moderator, who is a corporate lawyer, deftly moved the students away from asking Boehner about the ethics and morality of his board membership on Reynolds American.

When the student asked Boehner whether it was ethical for a former Speaker of the House to lobby Congress, Boehner brushed it aside.

“I don’t think it’s unethical, but I don’t do it,” Boehner said. “I don’t think a former Speaker should be a lobbyist.”

When Boehner was named to the board of Reynolds American last year, a spokesperson for the company told reporters that the company “is striving to transform the tobacco industry through innovative strategies that include speeding the decline in tobacco use among young people and reducing the harm caused by smoking.”

“These are objectives Speaker Boehner supports and looks forward to helping Reynolds American advance through his service on the board,” the company spokesperson said.

This explanation irritated Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“It is truly absurd that tobacco giant Reynolds American and former House Speaker John Boehner, who was elected to Reynolds’ board of directors today, would express a commitment to ‘speeding the decline in tobacco use among young people,’” Myers said at the time. “Their records show the exact opposite. Reynolds’ announcement pairs the tobacco company with the most egregious record of marketing to kids and a politician with a long record of fighting policies to reduce youth tobacco use.”

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Reynolds has stepped up its marketing of Newport cigarettes to young people with coupons for cigarettes at just $1 per pack and ‘Newport Pleasure Lounges’ at music festivals.

“Reynolds knows that reducing cigarette prices attracts price-sensitive youth, and the tobacco industry has a long history of using concerts to market to young people,” Myers said. “Reynolds’ latest marketing schemes are blatant efforts to circumvent federal law, which bans free samples of tobacco products and direct sponsorships of concerts because these strategies have been found to appeal to kids.”

“At the same time Reynolds is offering coupons for ultra-cheap Newport cigarettes, the company is pouring millions into fighting ballot initiatives to significantly increase cigarette taxes in California, Colorado and North Dakota. Reynolds, Altria/Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have already spent about $60 million to run deceptive ads against these initiatives. Reynolds is opposing these initiatives for the very same reason it is offering cheap Newports: It knows that increasing the price of cigarettes is one of the most effective ways to reduce smoking, especially among kids.”

As a member of Congress, Boehner was a top recipient of tobacco industry campaign contributions and consistently opposed legislation to reduce youth tobacco use, including the 2009 law granting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over tobacco products.

Boehner once handed out campaign checks from tobacco interests on the House floor. Toward the end of his tenure, Boehner worked to weaken FDA oversight of electronic cigarettes and cigars, an effort that other members of Congress are continuing today and should be rejected.

“It’s not surprising Boehner would go to work for Reynolds American, a tobacco company with a long and continuing history of marketing to kids and fighting proven strategies to reduce youth tobacco use,” Myers said. “Reynolds brought us the cartoon character Joe Camel, the most notorious example of cigarette marketing to kids, and the company’s Camel and Newport brands remain two of the three most popular cigarette brands among kids today.”

“It is also not surprising that Boehner is joining Reynolds at the same time there is growing pressure for the FDA to ban menthol cigarettes. Newport is the leading menthol brand. The African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council last year called on the FDA to ban menthol, with support from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health organizations. Newport and other menthol cigarettes have been heavily marketed to African Americans with devastating health consequences. A 2013 FDA report concluded that menthol cigarettes lead to increased smoking initiation among youth and young adults, greater addiction, and decreased success in quitting smoking. It is time for the FDA to act on these findings and ban menthol cigarettes.”

“Reynolds American likes to claim it is ‘transforming tobacco,’” Myers said. “But in reality, the company is doing everything it can to preserve its cigarette market for as long as possible. Elected officials have an obligation to reject the company’s efforts to wield political influence and act to protect kids and public health instead.”

That’s a good factual basis for a question about ethics, morality, Boehner, Christian values and public health.

Too bad the kids didn’t get a chance to ask it.

More articles by:

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

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