The Tobacco Lobby

by Tom Ferraro

WITH A HAND FROM AN INDUSTRY BLAMED for the deaths of an estimated 434,000 U.S. citizens per year, the Republican fundraiser saluted George Bush.

"To your health, Mr. President," the toastmaster said as 4,100 well-wishers at the Washington Convention Center lifted champagne glasses embossed with the words: "The United States Tobacco Co." Bush smiled and the black-tie gathering roared approval.

The U.S. Tobacco Co., along with five other tobacco giants - Lorillard Tobacco, Philip Morris, RJR Nabisco, the Smokeless Tobacco Council and the Tobacco Institute - were among 150 sponsors of last spring's gala, The President's Dinner.

These six concerns help form the core of the highly influential tobacco lobby, which campaigns each year against anti-smoking legislation and thwarts efforts to end tobacco's lethal status as the nation's least regulated consumer product.

Although tobacco has become unacceptable in many circles of U.S. life, it remains a strong presence in the inner sanctum of U.S. political life. A bona fide power broker, the tobacco lobby doles out money to politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, in return for votes, favors and influence.

In 1988, the Tobacco Institute, the industry's trade organization, ranked first among special-interest groups in honoraria fees paid to Congress, at $123,400. RJR- Nabisco, the food and tobacco conglomerate, ranked fourth, at $69,500. Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette producer, paid $41,000 in congressional speaking fees, while the Smokeless Tobacco Council, which represents makers of snuff and chewing tobacco, shelled out $27,500.

Last year, Congress outlawed honoraria in exchange for giving itself a hefty pay hike. Regardless, tobacco money, called "blood money" by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Louis Sullivan, continues to flow heavily through the halls of power.

In the 1990 House and Senate races, political action committees (PACs) representing tobacco interests gave more in contributions than any other agricultural PAC. Tobacco's 12 PACs donated more than $2 million, a 48 percent jump over 1988. PACs are limited to contributing $5,000 per election per candidate.

In addition to writing "hard money" checks to candidates, the tobacco industry contributes "soft money" to the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for national, state and local party building.

In 1990, four tobacco concerns, led by RJR Nabisco, ranked among the top 20 "double givers," those who gave to both the RNC and the DNC, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics. RJR Nabisco contributed $32,825 to the DNC and $156,430 to the RNC. Philip Morris, U.S. Tobacco and the Tobacco Institute gave another $124,650, $83,761, and $59,650, respectively, to the two parties.

Tobacco executives make personal political contributions of their own to lawmakers, generally to those from tobacco-rich states or to those who serve on key congressional committees. Under federal law, individuals are limited to a $1,000 donation per candidate in a general election. Overall, they may contribute up to $25,000 per election cycle to a variety of candidates.

A random check of a dozen tobacco executives through the National Library on Money and Politics, which tracks campaign contributions, found that four had made contributions in the 1990 congressional campaigns. Louis Bantle, chair and chief executive officer of U.S. Tobacco, contributed $1,000 to Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, $1,000 to Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, and another $1,000 to Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Virginia. James Johnston, chief executive officer of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., gave $500 to the re-election campaign of Rep. Stephen Neal, D-North Carolina, while Michael Myers, chief executive officer of Philip Morris, donated $500 to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-South Carolina. Andrew Tisch, chief executive officer of Lorillard Tobacco Co., contributed $1,000 to Hollings, $1,000 to Rep. Nita Lowey, D-New York, $500 to Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-Rhode Island, and $1,000 to Sen. John D. Rockefeller, D-West Virginia.

You get what you pay for

HHS Secretary Sullivan was among those at last June's GOP fundraiser, The President's Dinner. An anti-smoking advocate, Sullivan has ripped the tobacco industry for its $3 billion-a-year marketing campaigns, which use images of sexual attraction, business success and athletic prowess to hawk smokes, especially to women, the poor and the young.

In 1990, Sullivan blasted the Virginia Slims women's tennis tournament for accepting tobacco sponsorship. Noting the number of people in the United States killed each year by smoking as well as the $65 billion annual cost for tobacco-related health care and lost wages, Sullivan made an emotional yet futile appeal. "This blood money should not be used to foster a misleading impression that smoking is compatible with good health," Sullivan said. "The most courageous, prudent and morally correct action would be for [advertising outlets]to kick the tobacco habit."

But Sullivan offered no protest over the "blood money" at the GOP fundraiser. Afterward, he said he felt "a bit uncomfortable" that tobacco companies were among the sponsors, but stated that he would not suggest that his call for a ban on tobacco money in sporting events be extended to the political arena.

"I really don't want to get involved in that," Sullivan said. "We as a nation have these companies as legal corporations. Were I to get involved in this issue, that would become the issue and the rest of my issue would be lost."

"This is hypocrisy. This is politics," scoffs Scott Ballin of the Coalition on Smoking OR Health.

Ron Kaufman, White House political director, was asked if the Bush administration was indeed guilty of hypocrisy.

"On background?" Kaufman asked.

No, on the record.

"No comment."

Ballin says, "We understand that as long as tobacco is legal, the industry's political contributions are legal. But we take offense at the power that political contributions have in buying votes on health issues. That's happening. No doubt about it."

He adds, "This hasn't gone on just during the Bush administration. It's gone on with every administration, Democrat and Republican, and every Congress."

With the notable exceptions of warning label reform in 1983 and a ban on smoking on airlines in 1990, Congress has passed no significant anti-smoking legislation since 1969, when it banned tobacco advertising on radio and television. Efforts to expand that prohibition to the print media or place tobacco under the control of a federal agency - such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Food and Drug Administration - have consistently been snuffed out.

Thomas Lauria, a spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute, which has yet to acknowledge that smoking kills, makes no apology for the industry's power in Washington. "During the past 20 years, we've been under attack," he says. "We line up our lawyers and supporters. This is a democracy. We're allowed to cover our bases."

For the past few years, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, has tried to move a comprehensive anti-smoking measure through Congress. The Tobacco Education and Health Protection Act would establish regulatory procedures for tobacco additives, further upgrade warning labels and financially encourage states to enforce laws against the sale of cigarettes to minors.

The White House has opposed the measure as unnecessary. Anti-smoking advocates disagree. They note that while additives for other products are required to demonstrate safety, the thousands of additives in tobacco products are neither disclosed to the public nor tested for safety.

Last November, an angry Rep. Michael Synar, D-Oklahoma, called a news conference where he let off steam and tried to rally the anti-smoking crusade. He pressed for support of legislation that would expand a federal drug and alcohol education program to include smoking while venting frustration over the influence of the tobacco lobby.

Synar asked, "Why have cigarettes and tobacco products, in spite of their devastating health effects, been exempted from every major health and safety law enacted by Congress?

"Why, unlike other legal products that are regulated for health and safety reasons, is there no federal agency with meaningful jurisdiction over tobacco products?

"Why do some of my colleagues repeatedly use the First Amendment as their basis for opposing restrictions on tobacco advertising when the Supreme Court has issued a ruling clearly indicating the constitutionality of placing reasonable restrictions on commercial speech?

"The answer," Synar charged, "is the tobacco lobby's stranglehold over Congress."

"When it comes to tobacco, some of my colleagues use every excuse in the book to support the tobacco lobby at the expense of the American people," he said.

"Is it too difficult to pass a simple law to incorporate tobacco into the national drug and alcohol education strategies or to pass laws - like that defeated in a House subcommittee - requiring enforcement of laws restricting sales to minors?"

Kennedy's Senate bill and the measure backed by Synar in the House remained bottled up in committee. That is where most anti-smoking legislation dies, never getting the chance to reach the full chamber for an up or down vote.

"If this ever gets to a vote on the floor of the House, we can win this," Synar told Multinational Monitor. "The tobacco industry can't buy the entire floor of the House. Or they can't massage, I think is a better word, the entire floor of the House."

"The tobacco people are perhaps one of the most pervasive special interest groups we have," he says. "There are very few activities in town - political or charitable - that they don't serve as a sponsor. They want to divorce themselves from the issue they don't want to talk about, which is tobacco."

There was no discussion of tobacco at the GOP fundraiser last spring - just Republican politics, George Bush and money.

The $1,500 per plate dinner was co-hosted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. The gala raised $7.1 million. The final $100,000 contribution, which made the political fundraiser the biggest ever, was given by U.S. Tobacco's chair and chief executive officer, Louis Bantle. When Bantle's donation was announced, the crowd cheered and the tobacco magnate rose and took a bow.


Agricultural PAC Totals by Sector and Party

  Total To Democrats To Republicans Dem. Pct. Repub. Pct.
Sugar Growers $1,675,219 $995,448 $679,771 59.4% 40.6%
Tobacco Products $2,004,866 $956,296 $1,048,570 47.7% 52.3%
Other Crops $1,338,659 $712,222 $626,437 53.2% 46.8%
Dairy Production $1,853,741 $1,187,044 $666,697 64.0%36.0%
Poultry/Livestock $865,230 $431,301 $433,929 49.8%50.2%
Ag Serv. & Equip. $1,354,547 $601,365 $753,182 44.4%55.6%
Food Processing $1,484,731 $437,320 $1,047,411 29.5%70.5%
Food Whsle/Retail $803,197 $256,900 $546,297 32.0%68.0%
Forest Products $1,444,412 $332,556 $1,111,856 23.0%77.0%
Farm Organiz. $514,447 $280,874 $233,573 54.6%45.4%

Commod Trding

$957,261 $632,750 $324,511 66.1%33.9%
TOTAL $14,296,310 $6,824,076 $7,472,234 47.7%52.3%