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Mike Pence said smoking "doesn't kill" and faced criticism for his response to HIV. Now he's leading the coronavirus response

Pence to lead U.S. coronavirus response
Vice President Pence to lead U.S. coronavirus response 06:20

When President Trump announced Wednesday that Vice President Mike Pence will lead the administration's response to the coronavirus, he said Pence "has a talent for this."But some public health experts have raised alarms not only about Pence's lack of medical training, but also his history of questionable and sometimes false statements on health and science issues.

Before entering the White House, Pence espoused views that can be disproven with data found on U.S. government webpages. As Indiana's governor, he faced a public health emergency that pushed him to reverse some of his stances — but only after delays that, according to health officials, made the situation worse.

Pence is now in charge of the U.S. response to a global outbreak that has already killed at least 2,800 people worldwide, sickened more than 83,000 and decimated the stock market at a rate not seen since the Great Recession.

These are a few of Pence's past positions and actions. When asked for comment, Pence's office directed CBS News to an interview Pence gave Friday on Rush Limbaugh's radio show, in which the vice president defended his record on public health. Quotes from that interview are featured below. 

Pence also defended his actions at a White House press conference about coronavirus on Saturday, saying he was "proud" of his work in Indiana. Mr. Trump supported him as well, saying the vice president has done "a phenomenal job on health care." 

"Smoking doesn't kill"

In a 2001, when Pence was running for Congress, he wrote a post on his campaign website warning against "the worst kind of Washington-speak" about regulating tobacco. 

"Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill," he wrote in the article dug up by BuzzFeed News.

He continued, without citing sources: "In fact, 2 out of every 3 smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer." [The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says "people who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke."]

Pence conceded that "smoking is not good for you," and urged people to quit. But he suggested that "back handed big government disguised in do-gooder health care rhetoric" would be "more harmful to the nation" than second-hand smoke. He also equated the dangers of smoking to fatty foods, caffeine and sports utility vehicles.

Years later, in Congress, Pence voted against legislation giving the Food and Drug Administration power to regulate the tobacco industry and adding new warning labels to tobacco products and ads. The bill passed, and President Obama signed it into law.

The CDC says smoking "is the leading cause of preventable death," with cigarette smoke responsible for more than 480,00 deaths per year in the United States (including more than 41,000 deaths from secondhand smoke exposure). It says tobacco use causes more than 7 million deaths per year worldwide.

Pence: Condoms are "very, very poor protection" and the safest sex is "no sex"

Pence, then a U.S. congressman representing Indiana, participated in a CNN panel in 2002 about abstinence education. Pence responded to recent remarks by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said he supported and encouraged condom use.

Pence said Powell's comments marked "a sad day" and went on, "Frankly, condoms are a very, very poor protection against sexually transmitted diseases." He said Powell "may be inadvertently misleading millions of young people and endangering lives."

Pence said later in the panel that he believes "the only truly safe sex" is "no sex," and "we ought to be sending a message to kids across the country" that "abstinence is the best choice for young people."

The CDC and World Health Organization say condoms can significantly reduce, though not eliminate, the risk of STDs — as well as other diseases like Zika and Ebola. A nonpartisan study in 2007 concluded that abstinence-only programs have little impact on teen sexual behavior. 

Indiana's HIV crisis

In 2015, when Pence was governor of Indiana, the state had its worst-ever HIV outbreak, with dozens of people contracting the virus after sharing needles to inject addictive painkillers.

The CDC recommended clean needle exchanges. But this was illegal in Indiana, and Pence initially opposed making a change for the crisis. 

More than two months after the outbreak was detected, state health officials and CDC doctors pushed in a meeting for Pence to relent. Pence's health commissioner told The New York Times that after the meeting, the governor said, "I'm going to go home and pray on it." (This has apparently led to the false claim, spread by critics including Bernie Sanders, that Pence wanted to "pray away" the epidemic. There is no record of him saying that.)

Days later, Pence issued an order allowing a temporary needle exchange, while making clear that he still opposed such policies and would veto any legislation for a broader needle exchange program. He did, however, later sign legislation allowing needle exchanges in counties that could prove they were experiencing an epidemic. 

A 2018 study by Yale School of Public Health researchers, published in The Lancet medical journal, said that earlier action could have averted more than 120 infections or even prevented the outbreak altogether. The study also noted that, under Pence's watch, funding was cut for the last HIV testing provider in the rural county where the epidemic exploded. 

In an interview Friday with Rush Limbaugh, Pence stood by his handling of the HIV epidemic, as well as other outbreaks in Indiana during his tenure as governor. Pence pointed out that needle exchanges were illegal in the state and he was personally opposed to them, but said he "made the hard call" when the crisis called for it.

"We dealt with the issue. We ended the spread of the disease. Everyone received treatment, and the community has completely recovered and I'm proud of it," Pence said.

He added that the experience taught him "the value of partnerships when you're dealing with a health issue," and he believed that was "the main reason" why Mr. Trump tapped him to lead the coronavirus response.

"I think by putting me over the administration's response to the coronavirus, the president wanted to signal the priority that he's placed on this," Pence said. "But he talked to me about my practical experience as a governor, because a lot of people are aware the CDC is involved, HHS is involved, Homeland Security is involved, and we've managed the quarantines." 

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