Young black man with glasses blowing smoke out of his mouth with a cigarette in his hand

As we approach the 2020 presidential election, you may find yourself in a bout of confusion over the GOP’s agenda. Denying climate change, accepting support from white nationalists, and the marriage of church and state all come to mind as things that have never been promoted so radically by the party. In addition to this shortlist, they are also pawns of the tobacco industry.

In a scathing piece by the Guardian, the Trump administration was taken to task with a plethora of facts connecting it to the tobacco industry. It turns out that over the last 35 years, the president has had a mutually supportive relationship with tobacco companies. The same is true of other big names in the GOP.

These ties have allowed tobacco lobbyists to play a role in policymaking. The fact that this has not been spoken of more is odd considering that the evidence for it is so condemnatory. What’s the deal with the Trump administration’s affiliation with the tobacco industry, and how is it shaping national health policy?

Donald Trump’s “Mutually Beneficial Partnership”

Trump’s ties to the tobacco industry go back to 1995. In a piece for NBC News, Adam Shapiro revealed that a proposal between Marlboro’s parent company Philip Morris and Donald Trump himself was set in motion regarding Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City, NJ. This included a Marlboro-sponsored poker room, signified by three large Marlboro signs. The deal was agreed to as a “mutually beneficial partnership” and would have marketed the cigarette brand to an expected 5 million annual visitors.

Though there is no indication of what happened with this proposal, Trump’s relationship to tobacco companies continued. As shown in the piece by the Guardian, he has reportedly made $2.1 million from his investments in the industry, revealed in his recent financial disclosures. When he was inaugurated, tobacco companies donated exorbitant amounts. Reynolds American donated the highest, which was over $1 million.

As pointed out by the Huffington Post, the tobacco industry fits well into Trump’s agenda, purely for the notion of job creation. But smoking itself isn’t so “mutually beneficial,” of course. Cigarette smoking is connected to negative health effects, including an increased risk of lung cancer, heart disease, and stroke, among many others. Given that smoking restricts blood flow, it can even lead to erectile dysfunction. Notably, 45 doesn’t actually smoke — he just invests in getting others to do so.

Mike Pence and Mitch McConnel’s Southern Smoking Roots

Equally substantial to Donald Trump’s personal tobacco ties, many members of his political circle had their careers funded by it. This is in no way coincidental; over the past two election cycles, the tobacco industry has dedicated a whopping 84% of their political donations to the Republican Party. Smoking’s role in unhealthy veins, clogged arteries, and Buerger’s disease have not been addressed by the GOP, and the party tends to ignore its connection to lung cancer.

Nobody has embodied this ignorance more than Vice President Mike Pence, who infamously stated that “smoking doesn’t kill” in 2000 before receiving significant financial support from tobacco companies. Now he has received over $100,000 in donations from the industry. In addition to that, his family was managerially involved in a chain of gas stations called Tobacco Road. Pence himself was personally invested in the company, though it has since gone bankrupt.

Another major player in this scandal has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, who long defended and fought for the tobacco industry. Several of his former staff were recently hired by the tobacco company Altria, who continue to support McConnel. He even threatened the Trans-Pacific Partnership due to its potential to derail the tobacco industry.

However, the Majority Leader recently sponsored a bill that would increase the purchasing age of tobacco to 21. He stated that this was because of the cancer rates in his home state of Kentucky, which were “tied directly to smoking.” This came as a surprise to many because McConnel himself has been paid handsomely in the past by the tobacco industry for his lax statements on smoking’s effect on personal health, as well as his position on tobacco regulation.

How “Truther” Movements Are Ignoring and Suppressing Oppositional Evidence

Despite a mountain of evidence uncovered by the FDA and declarations by surgeon generals, tobacco “truthers” in the GOP have repeatedly questioned science that has been proven by several nonprofit research agencies and federal health experts. Along with his claims that “smoking doesn’t kill,” Mike Pence shared false and uncited statistics. He has never taken responsibility for this misinformation and continues to accept donations from big tobacco.

Once vaping swept the nation and became the cultural phenomenon it is now, tobacco lobbyists started meeting with lawmakers regularly about e-cigarette regulation. According to the Guardian, this was done in conjunction with pushes to remove health warnings from tobacco packaging. The FDA and the Trump administration have repeatedly delayed any kind of regulation on e-cigarettes, which have been proven by the Keck School of Medicine at USC to be a gateway to actual smoking.

With this repeated denial of science, the Trump administration has lined its pockets with cash from big tobacco. Laws are being made and drafted with the influence of tobacco lobbyists. GOP politicians avoid smoking while ensuring that people continue to do so, staying alive while profiting off the deaths of others.

We have yet to see the full effects of McConnel’s sudden change of heart. But the southern roots of the tobacco industry have kept it a primary player in American politics. For McConnel’s southern GOP peers, it’s unlikely they will speak out against the business, as it tends to fund their campaigns and keep them in positions of authority.