Profits Over Principles for Romney?

This is just in from a progressive Mormon friend:

Few reports about Mitt Romney in the current presidential campaign have been more surprising to Mormons than Zach Carter’s Huffington Post article, “Mitt Romney’s Bain Made Millions on Big Tobacco In U.S., Russia” (9 October 2012). Carter reports that when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Bain & Co., under the direct leadership of CEO Mitt Romney, aggressively moved into the tobacco market in countries throughout Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics, and other states. Representing Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and British American Tobacco, and with U.S. government financial support, Bain & Co. “help[ed] its clients enter the Russian tobacco market, despite obvious and well-documented health hazards associated with smoking.”

As Bain’s CEO, Romney, who belongs to a Church that strictly prohibits tobacco use, apparently had no reservations about promoting tobacco in countries which had no or few regulations on the promotion or use of tobacco products. In fact, the documents show that this was the clear objective of American tobacco companies who were facing declining sales at home due to increased government regulations and scrutiny.

Romney has spoken of his personal disdain for tobacco, revealing that in his entire life he smoked only one cigarette—when he was a teenager. Growing up in the LDS Church, he would have heard many lessons and sermons about the ills of tobacco. As a Church leader he undoubtedly gave such sermons and lessons. Certainly, as a missionary in France when he was 19-21, Romney would have warned investigators of Mormonism who were using tobacco that they could not be baptized without completely quitting their tobacco habit.

But in his business life Romney was willing to promote products which he knew to have a deleterious effect on users. As a consequence of Bain and other companies’ promotion of Big Tobacco, cigarette use in Russia and Eastern Europe has increased dramatically. For example, Carter reports that in 1992 “only 7 percent of Russian women smoked,” whereas that number “has more than tripled” (to 22%) since then. Further, according to Matthew Meyers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “Russia is facing a true public health crisis… [Big Tobacco’s impact on Russia] is directly correlated with skyrocketing smoking rates among young people…The impact is direct and potentially catastrophic.” According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, currently 60% of Russians smoke, resulting in 400,000 smoking-related deaths annually.

According to Carter, Bain’s promotion of Big Tobacco came at a time when, like the tobacco companies themselves, Bain was facing financial problems. According to Romney’s own words, Bain “was short of cash and short of new clients.” As a result, shortly after taking over the helm of the company in 1990, Romney began looking for new clients, both at home and abroad. Among these were the three large tobacco companies referred to above. He was so successful that, according to the Romney campaign, “Bain & Co.’s turnaround was an incredible success. In just a year, a company on the brink had returned to profitability.” Carter argues, “Bain’s comeback would not have been complete without Big Tobacco.”

To what extent was Romney personally involved in the promotion of Big Tobacco? According to Sushovan Ghosh, a Bain representative promoting tobacco products in Russia at the time, Romney not only was aware of the campaign, he was excited about it. “He was my boss,” Ghosh told Carter. In The Daily Beast, Megan McArdle argues that while “it does seem to be true that Mitt Romney was CEO of Bain when they won some Phillip Morris business,… the Russian strategy stuff, which sounds more damning, seems to have mostly happened from 1993-1995,” when Orit Gadiesh was Bain’s CEO. However, Jason Linkins challenges McArdle’s conclusions in his Huffington Post article, presenting evidence that it was Romney who was actually in charge of Bain during these years. To whatever extent Romney was involved and to whatever extent he and his colleagues at Bain considered promoting tobacco as good business, it can’t possibly be justified from the pages of the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, or the teachings of modern Mormon prophets.'

Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.