George Boardman: Is Big Tobacco good for the legal pot industry? We live in strange times
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I never thought the time would come when I stood up for tobacco companies, but we live in strange times.
That thought occurred to me last week when I read that one of America’s leading critics of the cigarette industry is raising the specter of Big Tobacco taking over the recreational marijuana business. Apparently the opponents of legal pot will do anything they can to scare people.
Dr. Stanton Glantz, of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Research and Education, and two colleagues issued a 66-page analysis of two potential ballot initiatives to legalize recreational pot in California, concluding we would replace a crime problem with a public health one.
“Evidence from tobacco and alcohol control demonstrates that without a strong public health framework, a wealthy and politically powerful marijuana industry will develop and use its political clout to manipulate regulatory frameworks and thwart public health efforts to reduce use and profits,” the report states.
In a subsequent interview, Glantz made the kind of statement that can only come from somebody who spends a lot of time in an ivory tower instead of the real world: “The goal (should be) to legalize it so that nobody gets thrown in jail, but create a legal product nobody wants.” Now there’s a challenge.
It’s well known that people who smoke pot are more likely to experience paranoia, and pot advocates have been paranoid for decades over the prospect of Big Tobacco taking over the business if it ever becomes legal. Glantz, who I assume doesn’t use the stuff, articulated such fears in a 2014 article:
“Legalizing marijuana opens the market to major corporations, including those companies that have the financial resources, product design technology to optimize puff-by-puff delivery of a psychoactive drug (nicotine), marketing muscle, and political clout to transform the marijuana market.”
Tobacco companies swear up and down that they have no plans to enter the marijuana cigarette business, but nobody believes them. An industry loses credibility when it spends decades denying the health risks of its products.
Certainly the cynics on Wall Street don’t believe Big Tobacco’s denials. In a recent piece for Bloomberg View, writer Leonid Bershidsky pointed out that vaporizing technology being marketed by cigarette companies provides a perfect delivery system for pot. His conclusion: “For those not overly worried about the moral strings attached to investing in companies that pander to addictions, a greener future for Big Tobacco may be one of the biggest opportunities of a lifetime.”
Advocates for legalizing recreational pot in California say none of this can happen in the Golden State. “(The UCSF) report inexplicably chooses to ignore the extensive public health protections included in our measure — as well as child safeguards, the small-business and anti-monopoly provisions and the unprecedented investments in youth prevention, education and treatment,” said Jason Kinney, a spokesman for a recreational pot initiative endorsed by the California Medical Association.
The CMA-backed measure requires independent testing of commercial marijuana with licensing and supervision handled by the state Department of Public Health. Packaging and labels cannot be “attractive” to children, the measure states, and must have warnings about possible harm to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. The measure legalizes possession of one ounce of pot and cultivation of six marijuana plants for adults 21 and older.
But critics point out that the marijuana advisory board set up by the measure would be dominated by people with an economic stake in the industry, and any industry that has to answer to state bureaucrats and deal with the state Legislature is vulnerable to — shall we say — manipulation. Big Tobacco has never been reluctant to spread campaign contributions around Sacramento when there is something it wants or opposes, and even the most liberal elected officials don’t turn it down.
Still, I’m not sure Big Tobacco should be excluded from the fun if we legalize recreational pot. These guys have decades of experience manufacturing a uniform product, so the pot-smoking consumer will know what he’s getting. That’s more than you can say for the stuff that’s being sold now.
Certainly, pot would be easier to tax and we’d be better able to control access to our youth.
Heck, Nevada Union might be able to end its closed campus policy during lunch break. I’m sure Burger Basin would appreciate the spike in business. Besides, who would you rather do business with: A cigarette company or some scumbag drug dealer? (Never mind; I withdraw the question.)
But there’s no denying that given the opportunity, Big Tobacco would try to broaden the market for recreational pot.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a tobacco company would strike a deal with a certain beer company to market “Bud Light,” perhaps with a hint of menthol to make smoking pot more tolerable for the novice. I can hear a variation of the old Newport cigarettes jingle now: “Soft smoking, cool tasting, Bud Light filter cigarettes.”
If Big Tobacco proves to be too much for the hand wringers to stomach, I’m confident either Big Pharma or Big Liquor can fill the vacuum. Each of them has plenty of experience delivering mind-altering substances.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union.
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