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Thank You For Buying Our Toxic Plastic

Monday, June 1, 2009

It's 1960. Embattled tobacco industry reps, accused by the Federal Trade Commission and health groups of hawking products that kill people, retreat to a sumptuous hideaway and devise a campaign to salvage cigarettes by, among other things, targeting women.

Soon after the confab at Miami's luxe hotel Fontainbleau, long, slender cigarettes appear, most prominently Virginia Slims, cultivating feminists with its "You've come a long way baby" pitch. The tobacco business comes roaring back, and by 1968, women account for 47 percent of the American market.

Though smoking rates have declined since the 1990s, when anti-smoking sentiment hit a tipping point in the U.S., surveys indicate as many teenage girls as boys smoke, and 18 percent of adult women still smoke.

Flash forward to last week. Embattled food and chemical industry reps, trying to head off a nationwide ban of the toxic plastic chemical bisphenol A (BPA) in cans, bottles and other food containers, huddle in a back room of Washington's exclusive Cosmos Club -- and decide to target women.

Their dilemma: over the past dozen years, BPA, a synthetic estrogen, has been found to disrupt the endocrine system, even in trace doses. Bills to ban the chemical from baby bottles and other children's food containers are before Congress, the Cailfornia legislature and other state and local lawmaking bodies. Recently, the baby bottle industry yielded to pressure from state officials and consumer groups and agreed to turn to non-BPA plastic.

The canning industry, in the bullseye because it coats the insides of virtually all food cans produced in the U.S. with BPA-rich epoxy lining (Eden Foods, the rare exception, uses non-BPA can linings except for tomatoes), is in no mood to compromise. The chemical industry, which rakes in an estimated $6 billion in global BPA sales annually, is downright hostile to the idea of limiting BPA to things you don't eat on, like cell phones, computer casings and washing machine paint.

The Cosmos klatch minutes, which give a new meaning to the word cynical, leaked in a heartbeat to the Washington Post, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Environmental Working Group. The conversation, it seems, comes straight out of Big Tobacco's playbook.

In a scene that could have been lifted from Thank You for Smoking, novelist Christopher Buckley's brilliant take on Washington lobbyists, an industry note-taker and emailer recounted:

Attendees believe a balance of legislative and grassroots outreach (to young mothers ages 21-35 and students) is imperative to the stability of their industry.

Presumably, the industry reps focused on women because they make family purchasing decisions and care about health. The notetaker added:

Their 'holy grail' spokesperson would be a "pregnant young mother who would be willing to speak around the country about the benefits of BPA."

I couldn't make this up. Even Chris Buckley couldn't make this up.

Imagine: top lobbyists, among them Kathleen M. Roberts of the canning industry's North American Metal Packaging Alliance, slip into the glittering Beaux Arts mansion that houses the formerly all-male Cosmos to concoct a media campaign that centers on a pliant pregnant pitchwoman.

But who? What young mother will agree to tout a product that dozens of scientific studies have shown causes permanent damage to an embryo?

Surely not anyone who has read even a bit of the evidence that BPA disrupts the development of the reproductive system and brain, that it may harm the cardiovascular system, cause cellular changes leading to breast and prostate cancer, trigger diabetes and obesity and impede the body's response to chemotherapy.

There's more. The notetaker wrote:

Attendees suggested using fear tactics (e.g. "Do you want to have access to baby food anymore?") as well as giving control back to consumers (e.g. you have a choice between the more expensive product that is frozen or fresh or foods packaged in cans) as ways to dissuade people from choosing BPA-free packaging.

What the notetaker didn't note was that there are alternatives to BPA. Japan abandoned BPA can linings back in 1998 because students and young adults were turning up with alarming blood levels of the toxic chemical.

Another tawdry moment: according to the email, the lobbyists decided that:

Focusing on the impact of BPA bans on minorities (Hispanic and African American) and poor is also important.

Translation, if this passage needs any: fear tactics work well on impoverished, historically exploited people who don't have time to read those dry scientific reports because they're working two or three jobs trying to hold their families together, and paying top dollar for medical care when their kids get really sick because they don't have health insurance. EWG has posted the entire email at this link, so you can read it for yourself.

But for you young mothers and fathers who don't have time today, here are a few words you won't find: Safe. Healthy. Truth. Fact. Honesty. Candor. Integrity.

The tobacco industry didn't throw those words around either. That worked well, didn't it?

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