Bush White House may blow smoke at war on tobacco
WASHINGTON - President-elect George W. Bush apparently is
moving toward an armistice in the federal government's war on
Bush, who rarely addressed health issues related to cigarette
smoking during his campaign against Vice President Al Gore,
has nominated two men who are sympathetic to the tobacco
industry - both to sensitive administration posts.
Former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri is the Bush choice for
attorney general and Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson for
secretary of Health and Human Services.
Bush, himself a former smoker, has expressed doubts about the
wisdom of carrying on the Justice Department's lawsuit charging
the top five cigarette manufacturers with racketeering in an effort
to recoup money the government spent treating the poor for
smoking related illnesses under Medicaid.
The moderated approach has caught the attention of Wall Street,
where tobacco stocks have risen sharply since Bush's victory.
Shares in Philip Morris, which produces the top-selling Marlboro
brand, jumped 87 percent last year, while RJ Reynolds has seen
its stock more than double over the last eight months.
Anti-smoking activists are alarmed by the signals emanating from
the Bush transition office.
"What this portends is an uphill battle of gargantuan proportions,''
said Ahron Leichtman, executive director of Americans for a
Tobacco-free Society. "There's no question that this is really
devastating to the tobacco control movement. Is there anyone
who can spell out the benefits from a Bush presidency as they
relate to tobacco?''
The clearest indication of Bush's intentions springs from the
Ashcroft and Thompson nominations.
Ashcroft, already under attack from civil rights and pro-choice
organizations, was the only member of the Senate Commerce
Committee in April 1998 who voted against an anti-smoking
package sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that included
a $1.10 per pack increase in the federal cigarette tax and sharp
restrictions on marketing and advertising.
As attorney general, Ashcroft would assume responsibility for the
federal government's lawsuit seeking billions of dollars from big
tobacco for covering up the harmful effects of smoking.
An indication of Ashcroft's intentions could come as early as
Jan. 26, when Justice Department lawyers and attorneys
representing the tobacco industry are slated to exchange
documents. Any failure to proceed could sound the death knell
for the suit.
"Sen. Ashcroft was the major opponent of any kind of tobacco
reform,'' said John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on
Smoking and Health. "One would assume he's going to carry
those sentiments with him to attorney general.''
Banzhaf said his concerns stretch beyond the Justice Department
lawsuit. Ashcroft is likely to ignore other anti-smoking initiatives,
like an investigation into the placement of tobacco products in
popular media like movies and television.
"I assume that will be deep sixed,'' he said.
As secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson would
oversee agencies as diverse as the Surgeon General's office, the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Public Health
Service - all of which deal in some manner with smoking prevention
or the health effects related to smoking.
The Institute of Health Policy Studies at the University of California,
San Francisco, has shown that Thompson, in his campaigns for
governor, raised more than $60,000 from tobacco industry sources
and benefited from cigarette money in other ways - such as
$16,000 in travel expenses paid by Philip Morris.
Philip Morris, through its non-tobacco subsidiaries Kraft Foods
and Miller Brewing, is Wisconsin's largest private employer, a fact
that explains Thompson's corporate ties.
What's more difficult to rationalize, critics maintain, is a study
that ranked Wisconsin 49th in laws intended to limit youth access
to cigarettes. As governor Thompson vetoed legislation that would
have permitted municipalities to adopt local laws stricter than state
laws prohibiting teen smoking.
Thompson also is friends with Philip Morris vice president Andrew
Whist, creating what some anti-tobacco activists are calling "an
intolerable conflict of interest between a health secretary and the
industry responsible for 500,000 annual deaths and an annual
cost to Medicare of more than $22 billion."
Representatives of both Thompson and Ashcroft declined
comment, citing pending confirmation hearings in the Senate.
Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the Bush transition team,
dismissed the speculation, asserting that the next president
will "make his decisions based on what's right for America.''
Bush, McClellan said, supported tough anti-smoking measures
during his tenure as governor of Texas and "always believes in
helping children make the right choices."
The tobacco industry spent lavishly in the last election. According
to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington,
cigarette manufacturers pumped $4,473,970 into campaigns
during the 1999-2000 election cycle, most of which - $3,758,930 -
went to GOP candidates.
The Clinton administration gained a reputation for its solid anti-
smoking initiatives, including a failed effort to permit the Food
and Drug Administration to regulate nicotine levels in cigarettes.