Merchants of Death

Like my friend and sometimes colleague Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago, I’ve tended to get a lot angrier at Mitt Romney for policy positions that will undoubtedly hurt millions of American than for the past practices of Bain Capital that hurt thousands. So I note with interest Harold’s latest piece at Ten Miles Square, where one piece of information about Bain got his attention in a big way:

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….

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.'”

And as Harold notes, smoking is a big part of the ongoing public health nightmare in post-Soviet Russia.

He concludes:

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.

Need we add that Mitt Romney belongs to a church that has particular objections to tobacco use?

Guess if it’s legal, it’s “wealth-creation,” right? And that’s always beyond questioning.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.