In the sweltering heat of late summer, Thomas Novotny resigned as chief U.S. negotiator on an international treaty to reduce tobacco use. The real heat was on Bush administration officials, who were quick to deny that Novotny had political differences with the president.
As deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, Novotny led the U.S. delegation to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Officials at HHS stated that Novotny, 54, simply wanted to retire. But numerous sources close to Novotny, who served in this capacity in both the Clinton and Bush presidencies, said that he was frustrated with administration moves to back off high standards on the advertising and marketing of cigarettes and restrictions on secondhand smoke.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a congressional leader in struggles to hold the industry accountable, called the Bush administration positions a "breath-taking reversal in U.S. policy-going from global leader on tobacco control to pulling back and advocating the tobacco industry's positions."
Only a month earlier, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the federal case was weak (much to the surprise of the many state attorneys general who had tried or settled cases against the tobacco industry) and that the government would likely need to settle out of court with the industry. Such a public pronouncement, of course, does not put prosecutors in a strong bargaining position.
Rev. Douglas Miles, pastor of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, believes "the attorney general's decision [to settle out of court] is unconscionable, given his profession as a Christian, since he has chosen an allegiance to profit over the good of the people."
During his confirmation hearings, Ashcroft declared, "I am no friend of the tobacco industry." But the record suggests otherwise. Ashcroft served on the advisory board of the Washington Legal Foundation, a think tank strongly identified with the industry. The WLF is one of many mouthpieces attempting to "legitimize a predatory, rogue industry," says Rick Bernardo, co-director of the Spirit of Life, a youth tobacco-prevention partnership of the Minnesota Council of Churches and the Minnesota Department of Health.
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, another Cabinet member with long-standing ties to the WLF, received more than $100,000 in contributions from tobacco groups while Wisconsin governor. Philip Morris thanked him for his "value[d]...loyalty and friendship." While acting as advisor to then-Gov. Bush, Senior Advisor Karl Rove was a paid lobbyist and consultant for Philip Morris. In this capacity, Rove pushed Bush to limit victims' ability to combine claims in class-action lawsuits, to seek punitive damages, and to consider pain and suffering in compensation.
Not surprising, with friends in such high places, the tobacco industry has revived. And it has a strategic agenda for this presidency: Continuing to exempt tobacco from the FDA oversight required of other drugs; working toward trade policies that make it easier for tobacco companies to promote tobacco overseas; trying to stop the Department of Justice lawsuit that charges the industry with hiding the addictive nature of nicotine; and challenging state and local restrictions on advertising to children.
Some hopeful signs exist. In Florida, Mississippi, and Minnesota, reports show the effectiveness of programs where youth stand up to tobacco companies. When young people see how the tobacco industry targets them and vulnerable communities for lifelong addiction to a deadly product, they become less vulnerable to those intentions.
"Tobacco companies see their customers as, in one executive's words, the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid,'" says Bernardo. "They invoke spirituality in their marketing and promotional funding alike, with a two-fold goal: provide teens a false, addictive rite of passage, and silence real community voices."
Communities of faith are beginning to organize around this significant public health issue. For Rev. Miles and others like him, tobacco use is a spiritual issue. "The role of the church," Miles says, "is to raise a public voice about an industry set up to profit upon people's enslavement."
Bob Hulteen is the director of the Twin Cities Religion and Labor Network. As director of the Minnesota Council of Churches' Commission on Life and Work, he was engaged with the Spirit of Life Project.