In 1998, a class action lawsuit between the four largest United States tobacco companies (Phillip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard) and the Attorneys General of 46 of the 50 American states was settled. The tobacco companies agreed to pay US$206 billion over the first 25 years of the agreement.
The companies also agreed to “curtail or cease” some marketing practices and pay in perpetuity annual payments to the states to compensate them for medical costs associated with smoking-related illnesses. The money also funds the anti-smoking advocacy group called the Truth Initiative, the very group responsible for those ubiquitous thetruth.com ads.
In other words, the tobacco industry has been advertising against itself for almost two decades. During the legal proceedings several disturbing revelations were made and the American states demanded their pound of flesh. It remains the largest civil litigation agreement in US history.
Tobacco companies were revealed to have manipulated nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them more potent, ie addictive. Cognisant of the fact that the younger a person started smoking the longer they would remain a customer, they began steering their advertising toward children. It was revealed that the popular Joe Camel cartoon advertisement was designed to attract children and encourage them to experiment with cigarettes.
The US Department of Health and Human Services had determined that 90 per cent of US adult smokers began before the age of 20. Tobacco companies also began advertising cigarettes to women as an aid for weight loss and as an anti-anxiety treatment; they were promoting the “health benefits” of smoking.
Never mind, even back then, it was strongly suspected that prolonged tobacco use could result in cancer and possible death. The tobacco companies did not care and, according to internal documents, consistently placed profits over people. So, how they are still allowed to operate is anyone’s guess?
Fast forward to the present, the United States is in the midst of a raging opioid crisis. In 2017 alone, more than 70,000 Americans were killed by opioid abuse. The problem has become so pervasive that the opioid crisis has actually reduced the average US life expectancy by one-tenth of a year, to 78.6 years.
Coincidentally, Americans also saw a sharp increase in suicide rates. Many believe this epidemic was spawned by the global financial crisis of 2008 and the inexorable transition from an industrial economy to a digital age.
Unskilled and low-skilled labour have had difficulty finding jobs while those skilled in STEM fields are in high demand and are being well compensated. As a strata of Americans became more despondent about their economic prospects drug abuse and suicides became more prevalent. Cities, counties, state’s Attorneys General and even Native American tribal councils are now suing the very drug companies that swore their product was safe. The US Justice Department has also filed suit and the US Attorney General has filed a separate federal lawsuit at the urging of President Trump. Thus, all over the country Attorneys General, advocates and doctors contend, “tens of millions of dollars were intentionally spent by pharmaceutical companies to downplay addiction concerns, market exaggerated benefits of opioids, and lobby doctors to prescribe more.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2018/10/18/opioid-lawsuits-on-par-to-become-largest-civil-litigation-agreement-in-u-s-history/#5afc64077fb4)
This was exactly the strategy big tobacco had been accused of employing almost two decades earlier, and with precedent set, these arguments of false advertising stand a good chance of being heard in the courts. Consider how similar this all sounds to what is currently being peddled by marijuana advocates.
In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis American states were desperately looking for ways to generate additional revenues in a profoundly depressed economic environment with spiralling unemployment rates.
Enter marijuana advocates.
After decades of “just say no,” claiming that marijuana was a gateway drug to more dangerous forms of substance abuse and that long-term use could negatively affect cognitive brain function and even cause psychosis, some are now extolling marijuana for its—you guessed it—health benefits.
Marijuana has been a controlled or banned substance for much of its history and due to this few scientifically credible studies have been conducted to confirm any suspected health benefits. Also, if you grew up in T&T you know at least one or two people who have completely fried their brains on marijuana; erratic behaviour, poor mental performance and extreme paranoia.
All of this occurring at a point in time when legislation and education programmes have reduced tobacco use to an all-time low. What a coincidence!
A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that the smoking rate in America has fallen to 16 per cent, the lowest level on record since the question was first asked in 1944. Public smoking bans in many US cities and states have contributed significantly to this phenomenon, with rates among younger people declining dramatically since 1999.
In the early 2000s, 34 per cent of Americans aged 18-29 said they smoked a cigarette in the past week and by 2018, that had fallen by more than half to 15 per cent. It has reached the point that thetruth.com has declared that cigarette smoking will cease to exist within a generation. It should be no surprise that big tobacco has declared its intention to pivot into the newly legalised marijuana industry.
For decades, companies like Phillip Morris have wanted to get in on the marijuana action. According to once-secret documents obtained through a lawsuit from tobacco industry leaders in 2014, Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco and other large tobacco companies were making plans to enter the marijuana industry as far back as the 1970s. (https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/big-tobacco-pot-weed-cannabis-industry-727407/)
Would anyone be surprised if it were revealed one day that this sudden surge in demand for marijuana legalisation had been quietly sponsored and orchestrated by big tobacco?
Marijuana infused edible candies have already sent several children to the emergency room and many believe were developed with the intent of addicting children as young as possible. A familiar strategy. Again, the younger they use, the longer they will use.
Some advocates have championed the legalisation of marijuana locally due to its potential as a cash crop and foreign exchange earner. Successful international trade requires competitive advantage and marijuana is no different. If you have seen Season 3 of the Narcos series you would know that Mexican “sensimilla” dominated the world marijuana market because it was a highly concentrated form of cannabis, which had to be grown in a desert oasis (far away from other plants to prevent contamination), in a country with loose enough law enforcement, in close proximity to the most profitable export market in the world—the United States.
How many countries could possibly replicate those conditions?
It was a superior product that was extremely difficult to reproduce next to a major market, ie they had huge competitive advantage. What competitive advantages would T&T possess in the global marijuana trade? What could we produce that could not be easily replicated by others?
Also, in the race to compete against other producers modern marijuana is dramatically more potent than its hippie era predecessors.
A recent scientific study found that its potency is higher than ever: at least three times more potent.
“The higher the THC content, the stronger the effects on the brain,” says Dr Volkow, who has done research on this topic herself. “And the more likely you may end up with toxic reactions—like psychosis. Even the occasional user may end up in the ER. The very significant increase in ER visits, it’s due to THC content being much higher now. It’s not that we’ve increased the number of people taking marijuana.” (https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/03/23/pot-evolution-how-the-makeup-of-marijuana-has-changed-over-time/#46275ebb59e5)
The point is that it’s fine if people want to smoke, drink, use opioids or even marijuana. The challenge is that we shouldn’t remain naive and vulnerable to hyperbole about “health benefits” which may be tailored by those who may want to benefit at our expense. It’s like people who actually believe that diet soft drinks are healthy; it’s not healthy, just less harmful.
Much like cigarettes and other drugs, marijuana usage needs to be regulated so users are not misled by the unscrupulous in another effort to place profits ahead of people.
We have seen it before, several times and, if there isn’t enough caution, we will see it again.