Big Tobacco unleashes on Cuomo, threatening loss of State Senate on proposed cigarette ban

After reports swirled across the State late Friday night that senior public health officials in the administration of Governor Andrew Cuomo were actively drafting a temporary six-week ban on the sale of combustible cigarettes, the Altria Group (which owns Phillip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, JUUL, and most other nicotine-based consumables) had ‘wartime lobbyists’ on the ground in Albany by daybreak Saturday.

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker was said to have been preparing a major public service announcement on Sunday evening, warning New Yorkers of the especially pronounced morbidity risks of COVID-19 for smokers.  The filming of that public service announcement was nixed by mid-day Sunday and the Governor’s office pulled public remarks on Monday.

Cuomo had wanted to launch a sweeping public health campaign that would have educated smokers about how and why they should either quit smoking altogether or transition to non-combustible forms of nicotine consumption for the duration of the Corona outbreak.

He even planned to suspend sales taxes on nicotine gum, patches, and lozenges in order to make it easier for smokers to save themselves and emplored Altria to slash prices on those products — which, we are told, they continue to consider.

Instead, Cuomo and legislative leaders are on the brink of offering Big Tobacco an enormous gift worth many tens of billions of dollars: a new regulation on e-vapors that would squash nearly every competitor that is not affiliated with Altria and it’s subsidiary JUUL.

That proposal is similar to a bill that Florida lawmakers passed earlier this month, which has led to infighting in the Legislature, with neither the Senate nor the Assembly taking responsibility it.  But flavored vape ban advocates who cite data that suggests the products are 95% safer than combustible cigarettes, have argued that the source of the contentious proposal is clear: the tobacco industry.

The regulation creates a ‘Pre-Market Tobacco Application’ that would tie a prohibition on the sale of flavored electronic cigarettes and e-liquids in New York to an FDA review of the devices — which would create an enormous barrier to enter the marketplace if you cannot afford the many millions of dollars in costs of that grueling process.

“The Cuomo administration’s budget proposal leaves combustibles on the market, kills mom and pop vapor shops, and monopolizes the market for Altria,” explains one retail entrepreneur who hopes to remain in the marketplace.  “Only Altria will have the capital bandwidth to afford and to weather the years-long FDA approval process.”

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James Monsees, left, and Adam Bowen, co-founders of Juul Labs. When they sold their startup to Altria they became billionaires, though current valuations of the firm have slipped. Now, as part of the Altria Group, they are helping the conglomerate monopolize the market to prevent the emergence of mom and pop competitors.

The temporary ban on the sale of combustible cigarettes that the Administration had been planning was intended to reduce the State’s COVID-19 death count, sources familiar with Cuomo’s thinking tell The Chronicle.  Last week new data out of Italy suggest that the nation’s whopping Coronavirus death rate — now approaching 10% of those who test positive — is highly correlated to cigarette use, and doctors groups had been calling forfor the ban.

Italian men smoke cigarettes at rates that far outpace most other developed countries, and the extreme shortage of ventilators there has been the cause of death for tens of thousands of smokers.

According to Italy’s National Health Institute, smokers with COVID-19 were one-third more likely to have a serious clinical situation than non-smokers. Half of these smokers required a ventilator. COVID-19 kills its victims by compromising the respiratory system and reducing oxygen levels in the blood. Regular cigarette use damages the airways and small air sacs in the lungs. Combustible cigarettes weaken smokers’ lungs by filling them with smoke and tar.

For many weeks, it was observed that women in Italy are better able to overcome the virus than men. Italian doctors now believe that the statistical difference is attributable to smoking-related gender norms, which are particularly pronounced in the northern regions of the country.

“When a smoker contracts COVID-19, he or she will be far more likely to suffer respiratory system failure, thereby exacerbating New York’s ventilator shortage,” had planned to say, but never did. “Fortunately, medical science informs us that ex-smokers experience significant recovery in lung function and oxygen absorption as soon as they quit smoking.”

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Former smokers recover 30% of their lung function just two weeks after quitting.

The sale of combustible cigarettes causes more than 443,000 deaths annually — more deaths each year than from murder, car accidents, alcohol or drug use, suicides, and HIV combined.  That’s nearly 2 million Americans every four years.

It’s estimated that, in a best-case scenario, between 100,000 and 200,000 people will die from COVID-19.  In the absence of any mitigation policies, more than two million Americans could have died.

But senior members of the State Senate — including Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Mike Gianaris, and Liz Krueger — agree with public health experts: a ban on cigarette sales for the duration of the outbreak will save thousands of lives and will reduce the State’s shortage of ventilators, perhaps by several thousand during its peak — which is projected to hit the State less than 20 days from today.

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Senator Liz Krueger Chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is one of the most influential members of the Democratic caucus.  In recent days she has been rallying colleagues around a temporary ban on the sale of combustible cigarettes.

If New York takes immediate action and temporarily bans combustible cigarette sales during this public health crisis, it’s thought that ex-smokers’ respiratory systems will make significant recovery at the very same time that COVID-19 cases are peaking in New York.

“This will save lives, and not just the lives of smokers,” the Governor seemed willing to say prior to Altria’s lobbyists landing on the ground in Albany. “Every former smoker that gets sick, but does not need a ventilator, means one more ventilator is available to keep our aging parents and grandparents alive.”

“Importantly, we must also recognize that failing to temporarily ban combustible cigarettes immediately will cause a disproportionate increase in COVID-19 fatalities in minority communities, given the higher prevalence of immuno-deficiencies in these communities,” he planned to note in prepared remarks that were shared with The Chronicle late Friday afternoon.

It’s been rumored The Governor’s supporters argue that it is more important now than ever to address the public health cost of combustible cigarettes — not just to save the lives of smokers, but to save the lives of all New Yorkers by mitigating the severity of a ventilator shortage. That shortage is expected to impact high-needs populations worst, including those with immune-deficiencies, the elderly, and chronic respiratory illness.

The Chronicle is told that Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the longest-serving member of that chamber and the Chairman of the Health Committee, plans to push for the temporary six-week ban on the sale of combustible cigarettes during budget negotiations this week.

Richard Gottfried
Chairman Gottfried has long pushed for universal single-payer healthcare in New York and has championed anti-smoking policies over many decades.

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