At a time when bitter partisan divisions dominate the news, Philadelphia's City Council stepped forward a few weeks ago on a bipartisan bill to protect the city's children from our number one killer. Last week, that progress was snuffed out by legislators in Harrisburg working on behalf of Big Tobacco – a step we all should remember in November.
Tobacco remains our biggest preventable cause of death here in Philadelphia, where smoking rates drive the city's high rate of early mortality — the highest of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Tobacco, marketed heavily to minorities in our lowest-income neighborhoods, also drives poverty, as smokers lose prime earning years in addition to the thousands they spend on cigarettes and related health care.
In recent years the tobacco companies have found a new technique of getting Philadelphia's children to start smoking by marketing cigarillos infused with candy flavors. These cheap, addictive products each contain about 3 times the tobacco of a cigarette, and are sold in packs of four or five for 99 cents, in flavors like cotton candy, fruit punch, and brownie. Some have pictures of ice cream cones on the front, in case anyone had missed the point that they are aimed directly at our children. Those candy-like packages of cigarillos aren't subject to city or state cigarette taxes, so a child can get the equivalent of half a pack of cigarettes for less than a dollar. And I do mean a child — many smokers start as young as 11 or 12, and 90 percent start by the age of 19.
After lengthy stakeholder discussion and several public hearings, Philadelphia's City Council was poised to pass a moderate bill, introduced with 12 co-sponsors (more than enough to pass), which would have banned the use of fruit and candy flavors in cigars and cigarillos, with an exception for specialty tobacco shops.
But what happened next was the opposite. In a backroom somewhere in Harrisburg, shielded from public view, nameless legislators inserted a clause straight from the tobacco industry's playbook into the state budget. That clause bans any laws or regulations about the sale of tobacco in Philadelphia after June 1, 2018. We'll never know which legislators insisted on that language. But we will know that by doing so, they robbed Philadelphia of local control.
If people in other parts of Pennsylvania want to sacrifice their children to support Big Tobacco's profits, shame on them. But if they want to offer up our kids, that's another story altogether. Because we can't afford to lose another life to tobacco here in Philadelphia.
Smoking isn't about willpower. It is about how a multi-billion-dollar industry finds new ways to trick our teens — particularly low-income and minority teens — into an addiction. Against sophisticated marketing, our kids don't stand a chance. That's why we need local laws to protect them. And that's why City Council was right on target — until cynical legislators in Harrisburg blocked them.
Pennsylvania's new budget was signed into law a few days ago. The governor would have had to veto the entire budget in order to avoid this gift to the tobacco industry — that's how this nefarious backroom deal worked.
But there is still something we can do. We can vote. And we can make sure our friends, family, and neighbors vote. Because we need folks in Harrisburg to understand that Philadelphia won't tolerate having our kids' future sold out from under them. And I for one want to hear legislators promise to stand up to Big Tobacco before they'll get my vote. How about you?
Colleen McCauley, RN, BSN, MPH is Health Policy Director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth. @pccyhealth