For much of the last eight years, Barack Obama has been struggling to keep a promise he made to his wife to quit smoking when he ran for president. As recently as last year, he was photographed in Germany holding something that looked suspiciously like a pack of cigarettes. (His spokesman denied it.) So public health advocates might be relieved that the White House will soon be occupied by a nonsmoker, president-elect Donald Trump.
Except that several key members of Trump’s transition team have ties to the tobacco industry — ties that have the anticigarette group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) “absolutely worried about the Trump administration,” a spokeswoman told Yahoo News. Of all the apocalyptic concerns that critics have raised about prospective members of the Trump administration, tobacco policy ranks far down the list. But it represents, in microcosm, the overlap between the transition team and the “swamp” of corporate lobbying and influence Trump had pledged to drain. And it will be one area to watch as the new administration sets in motion Trump’s announced plans for a wholesale dismantling of the modern regulatory state.
The worry for ASH began when Trump chose as his running mate Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who as a congressional candidate in 2000 wrote on his campaign website “Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” His evidence — that “2 out of every 3 smokers does not die from a smoking related illness” — suggested he was stretching the limits of logic to make his case, although he pointedly stopped well short of saying “that smoking is good for you.” In his career as a congressman, Pence went on to collect tens of thousands of dollars in tobacco industry campaign contributions, according to the liberal watchdog group ThinkProgress, and to vote against the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 — a bill that even most Republicans supported.
Pence is also the head of Trump’s transition team, which includes Cindy Hayden, a lobbyist for the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris. Hayden heads the Homeland Security team, an appointment presumably owing less to her tobacco industry experience than to her role in killing immigration reform bills as chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And then there is Myron Ebell of the right-wing think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, who heads the transition for the Environmental Protection Agency, and who, according to this profile by Jeremy Symons of the Environmental Defense Fund, was part of a tobacco-industry-funded effort in the 1990s to make cigarette regulations “politically unpalatable.”
Cigarette smoking has been on the decline in the U.S. for decades; only around 15 percent of the adult population smokes (although the figure in Pence’s home state of Indiana is 20.6 percent). There’s no reason to conclude that a Trump administration would actively seek to reverse that trend, but ASH sees a risk that future progress could be endangered. “There are a number of public health measures at risk if this administration remains closely tied to the tobacco industry,” Chris Bostic, ASH policy director, wrote in an email. “They could defund the Center for Tobacco Products at the FDA [which is working to strengthen warning labels on cigarette packages] or the Office on Smoking and Health which runs the very effective ‘Tips from Former Smokers’ campaign.” Bostic is also on the alert against any attempts to roll back federal tobacco taxes, “widely agreed to be the most cost effective way to cut smoking rates.”
It’s too early to say if the new administration would do any of this, but it would be consistent with promises made by Trump as recently as October to eliminate “70 percent of regulations” by the federal government. Do Americans think the federal government is doing too much to protect them from food poisoning? A fact sheet posted on the Trump campaign website — and later removed — denounced “inspection overkill” by the “FDA food police,” including rules on “farm and food production hygiene, food packaging [and] food temperatures.”
The Trump transition team did not respond to requests for comment on its regulatory agenda.
The hot-button regulatory issue is, of course, climate change, in particular the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a third. For a candidate whose stated plans for the EPA are to “get rid of it in almost every form,” Ebell seems like the ideal choice to head the transition team. His special expertise lies in climate change denialism, which he carries to extremes beyond even what his funders in the fossil-fuel industry are willing to say openly. “The main issue with Myron is that he’s been a hired gun for a long time, funded by the fossil fuel industry and before that by the tobacco industry to say crazy stuff,” says John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s director of federal and international climate campaigns. “Until now it didn’t matter there was this guy out there saying, those people dying in heat waves were going to die anyway.” Only now it does matter, from the point of view of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund, and of food-safety and health and consumer-protection advocates, that the forces they have been fighting for years will be setting the agenda in Washington.