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Jeff Sessions, Anti-Weed Crusader, Was a Shill For Big Tobacco

The new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is concerned about marijuana. Yesterday he said that he doesn’t want it to be “sold at every corner grocery store.” You can’t get weed at many corner stores just yet, but there is a product at those stores that kills about 400,000 Americans each year. And Sessions has vigorously defended the interests of that product. I’m talking, of course, about tobacco.

With more states legalizing marijuana for both medicinal and recreational use, the newly confirmed Attorney General says that he’s concerned about the drug. Sessions says it’s about health. But back in the 1990s and 2000s, he wasn’t so concerned about the real health epidemic of cigarettes.

“States can pass whatever laws they choose,” Sessions told a crowd at the National Association of Attorneys General meeting yesterday. “But I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.”

Oh gosh golly! Marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store! But what about all those corner stores that have a much deadlier product called cigarettes?

Funny you should ask. Because the tobacco industry helped get Jeff Sessions elected to the Senate in 1996. In fact, Session got a bit too much money from R. J. Reyonlds, the makers of Camel cigarettes, during his 1996 campaign. In October of 1997 his staff had to send money back to the company because they had donated more than was legally allowed.

Letter from the US Senate campaign for Jeff Sessions sending back money in October of 1997 that it had received in October of 1996 to get elected (UC-SF Tobacco Industry Documents archive)

Letter from the US Senate campaign for Jeff Sessions sending back money in October of 1997 that it had received in October of 1996 to get elected (UC-SF Tobacco Industry Documents archive)

Sessions would go on to rail against the lawsuits that the tobacco industry was facing in the late 1990s. During a private dinner, Sessions called the lawsuits “extortion” and said that it would lead to “shake downs” of other industries.

“If we let them get by with this extortion of the tobacco industry, then they’ll start shaking down other industries, one after the other,” Sessions said at a private dinner in July of 1997 with Bill Orzechowski, Chief Economist for the Tobacco Institute, a tobacco industry front group that tried to advocate against tobacco control policies.

How do we know Sessions said this? Thankfully, we have an archive of documents at the University of California-San Francisco that came out of a settlement with the Big Tobacco companies in the late 1990s, known as the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA). The Sessions quote about shakedowns comes from an email from tobacco industry insiders that was reporting back to R. J. Reynolds about how legislators would deal with the threats to their industry.

Back in the 1990s, states were pissed that they were paying for healthcare costs from smoking related diseases, and they started suing the tobacco companies one by one. Mississippi was the first to sue in 1994, and by 1997 had won, something nobody had ever done successfully against the tobacco industry before. Other states started to sue, and pretty soon enough states were emboldened that they lumped it all up into one big settlement.

The Master Settlement Agreement included handing over decades of documents showing that the tobacco industry knew tobacco was addictive (contradicting sworn testimony by every major tobacco exec in 1994), that tobacco was harmful to health (another thing that the industry denied for decades), and that the tobacco industry was explicitly targeting kids with their advertising.

Sessions also introduced a pro-tobacco industry amendment in 1997 that would cap how much money lawyers could make from suing tobacco companies. The goal was evidently to hamper legal efforts to go after the tobacco industry, which was spending millions to fight regulation of its product. The Sessions amendment was narrowly defeated.

From a September 11, 1997 Associated Press report:

A chastened Senate voted emphatically Wednesday to undo a $50 billion tobacco-industry break that had been slipped into a tax-cut bill signed into law just last month.

Voting 95-3 to repeal the provision, senators rather contritely agreed to an amendment that unraveled what sponsor Richard Durbin, D-Ill., called a “sweetheart deal” for the industry.

But the repeal was nearly derailed by an amendment from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who tried—and nearly succeeded—in limiting the fees that can be collected by attorneys hired by the states to press damage claims against the tobacco industry.

Sessions argued that the legal fees could amount to billions of dollars and are “too generous, too much of a windfall, and cannot be defended.”

Durbin and his allies defeated the Sessions amendment on a 50-48 vote by arguing that it would put states at a big financial disadvantage in their long and expensive legal jousting with the tobacco industry.

As late as 2004, Sessions was still opposed to FDA regulation of tobacco. And no, that’s not a typo. The tobacco industry fought regulation of its product for decades and FDA was only granted regulatory authority over it in 2009. Again, that’s not a typo.

When the Senate passed a compromise bill on regulation of tobacco by the FDA in 2004, Sessions was disgusted. He fought against regulation of tobacco as a drug using everything from free speech arguments to boilerplate pro-business language.

“One bad bill that couldn’t pass on its own attached to another bad bill that can’t be passed on its own,” Sessions said at the time, referring to the part of the proposed 2004 bill that also provided $12 billion to tobacco farmers who pledged to stop growing the product.

By 2009 he had finally come around and voted to allow the FDA to regulate tobacco as a drug—something that Philip Morris, an enormous tobacco company, was also supporting by 2009—because it was clear that the ridiculous fight against it had been lost.

The tobacco document archive (which is searchable online here) really is fascinating, and a search for “Jeff Sessions” or “Senator Sessions” gives hundreds of responsive documents about how the legislative and lobbying sausage gets made.

If we’ve learn anything about Sessions from the documents, it’s that he’s much less concerned about health than he is about maintaining the disastrous “war on drugs” of the bad old days. That is, as long as those drugs don’t include tobacco, the one that kills hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.

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