Mitt Romney Made Big Money From Big Tobacco

The first story about Mitt Romney’s Bain years that genuinely angers me.

I haven’t paid much attention to the debates over Romney’s Bain years. His behavior struck me as par for the course in that unsentimental neighborhood of American financial entrepreneurship that Bain called home.

My own beef concerns the immense psychological distance between Romney’s plutocratic policy positions and the creative destruction he has witnessed or unleashed over his business career. How could someone who witnessed the human consequences of plant closings and layoffs speak so disdainfully of 47 percent of Americans who are epically less fortunate than himself? How could he so obviously lack a sense of urgency regarding those left without health coverage—not to mention the elderly, low-income, and disabled Americans who rely on programs such as Medicaid his budget would deeply cut?

Because I’m so angry at Romney for policy reasons, and because I don’t know enough about the granular details of what Bain actually did, I’ve avoided prognostication about Romney’s character as a businessman beyond that.

I make an exception for this story. The story comes from the Crooks and Liars website citing a story by Jason Cherkis and Zach Carter at Huffingtonpost, via UCSF’s essential library of Legacy Tobacco Documents. The story concerns Bain’s role helping Philip Morris in the U.S., and helping British American Tobacco hawk cigarettes in post-Soviet Russia. Mitt Romney was the CEO who oversaw this business.

Samefacts readers know my strong views regarding cigarettes, and the obscenity of people profiting from a product that kills 400,000 Americans and millions of people around the world. My wife and I watched her parents suffer from lung cancer. Both died, way too young, from this disease.

Bain provided a variety of strategic services and advice for Philip Morris, including this nugget from Huffingtonpost:

In one document labeled “Corporate Affairs,” Bain argues that the cigarette maker needs a “coordinated, long-term approach to legal/regulatory/public opinion opportunities and challenges to maximize shareholder wealth.”

Bain’s advocacy amounted to an early example of corporate “astroturf” tactics that are now commonplace…. In the same “Corporate Affairs” document, under “mobilizations,” Bain consultants encourage the company “to conduct federal and local grassroots programs in support of the company’s legislative and regulatory efforts.”

For one such mission, Bain called on the company “to initiate and execute programs to support smokers’ rights, combat regulatory moves and improve corporate image.” Specifically, Bain felt Philip Morris could build support within the hospitality industry and by openly seeking to curtail access to cigarettes for young people.

In another 1995 document, Bain suggested that the company produce smokers’ rights newsletters and jumpstart “state-level” lobbying work that involved phone campaigns. Consultants suggested augmenting their “phone scripts” to include the specter of job losses due to cigarette tax increases, and bringing up their own “medical, science related issues.” that could “combat regulatory pressure.”

Huffpo also links to documents in which Bain advises BAT to pursue activities which “support consumers’ freedom of choice to smoke.”

Post-Soviet Russia has experienced public health catastrophe. Tobacco and alcohol misuse are central elements of the problem. When I visited Saint Petersburg doing HIV prevention work, I met many public health workers who lit up to lighten the tension of their difficult work. I imagine quite a few smoked Marlboro’s, Benson and Hedge’s and other western brands–whose all-too- effective marketing sways many people who might otherwise have quit.

Bain is hardly the only firm to court tobacco money. It still deserves scorn for being an enthusiastic partner in the sale of addictive products that damage and shorten millions of lives. To my mind, helping tobacco companies sell cigarettes and evade regulatory constraints is no better than orchestrating a plant closing, breaking implicit contracts with employees, and the other catalog of questionable activities Bain is accused of having done.

This story is important for its own sake. Tobacco also reveals the amorality with which too many entrepreneurs and firms approach the business enterprise.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.