Choice for Health Secretary Is Faulted on Tobacco Issue
WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 - Tobacco opponents in Wisconsin and Washington say Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, who is President-elect George W. Bush's choice to head the Health and Human Services Department, has not vigorously pursued tobacco control initia
As the parent corporation of two Wisconsin companies the Miller Brewing Company and Oscar Mayer Foods, a division of Kraft Foods Philip Morris is one of Wisconsin's largest employers. Mr. Thompson's aides and Philip Morris officials say it is appropriate that he has worked closely with company executives over the 14 years he has been Wisconsin's governor.
But tobacco opponents have raised concerns about Mr. Thompson's participation in two international trips financed largely by Philip Morris, as well as more than $72,000 in contributions to him from employees and executives of the company and its food and beer subsidiaries.
The contributions, made from 1993 to 2000, account for less than 1 percent of more than $10 million raised by the governor in that time. But those contributions represent the largest amount affiliated with any single company, according to the records compiled by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks election spending.
Tobacco opponents also criticize some of the governor's policy decisions, like his vetoes of two bills, one in 1995 that would have banned smoking at Milwaukee's new baseball stadium and another in 1990 that would have permitted municipalities to enact tougher tobacco restrictions than those of the state.
"Governor Thompson has a pretty well-documented relationship with Philip Morris, and that causes us some concern," said Paul Billings, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, which is neither opposing nor supporting the governor's nomination. "As secretary of health, one of the most important issues he will be facing is the horrendous toll tobacco takes on the American public."
Mr. Thompson, a Republican, declined to be interviewed for this article, referring questions to a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush. The spokeswoman, Alicia Peterson, said, "Governor Thompson has a record of opposing youth access to tobacco and tobacco products." Ms. Peterson said Mr. Thompson had banned smoking on school grounds and allowed teenagers to participate in sting operations to expose retailers who sold cigarettes to minors.
Peggy Roberts, a Philip Morris spokeswoman, said the company had worked closely with Mr. Thompson because of Philip Morris's economic interests in the state. The company has nearly 7,500 employees in Wisconsin, but no cigarette manufacturing plants there.
Mr. Thompson, 59, is Wisconsin's longest-serving governor. He has earned a national reputation as a champion of programs to put welfare recipients back to work and to provide health insurance for the poor. Democrats and Republicans in Washington expect him to win confirmation with little trouble.
Still, his record on tobacco policy is likely to surface in Senate confirmation hearings next week. Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said he intended to explore "the governor's views and record on issues like tobacco control."
If confirmed as secretary of health and human services, Mr. Thompson would oversee a vast agency. The department includes the Food and Drug Administration, which has tried to regulate tobacco products, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which guides states in developing antismoking initiatives.
Those initiatives, relying on money from a settlement with cigarette makers, have been controversial in Wisconsin, as in many states. Mr. Thompson has drawn criticism for the way he allocated money from Wisconsin's $170-million-a-year tobacco settlement. And while he has raised the cigarette tax several times most recently by 15 cents a pack in 1997 some say it is not enough.
The tax now stands at 59 cents a pack, but Bonnie Sumner, president of the Wisconsin Initiative on Smoking and Health, a nonprofit group that advocates strict smoking regulations, said she and other tobacco opponents believed that a tax of $1 was necessary to discourage young people from buying cigarettes. State officials said that 38 percent of high school students in Wisconsin smoke, as compared with 34 percent nationally.
"A 15-cent tax is a meaningless figure as far as decreasing smoking," Ms. Sumner said.
Joe Leann, Wisconsin's health secretary, said critics like Ms. Sumner were short-sighted, and said they have ignored the governor's other accomplishments, which included offering smoking cessation clinics as part of the state's health insurance program for low-income families.
In 1996, when many states were contemplating filing suit against the tobacco industry for reimbursement of the cost of caring for injured smokers, the state's attorney general accused Mr. Thompson of dragging his heels.
Wisconsin did join more than a dozen other states in filing claims against the cigarette industry, and Mr. Thompson became a vocal supporter of the lawsuit. But he drew criticism when The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published telephone records indicating that in the weeks before the suit was filed, Mr. Thompson had placed a series of telephone calls to Philip Morris executives, including one to its chief executive, Geoffrey C. Bible.
The content of the conversation with Mr. Bible has never been disclosed and Ms. Roberts declined to discuss it. But she defended the relationship between the governor and the company. "It is important to our businesses in Wisconsin for us to maintain that relationship, and those businesses include food and beer," Ms. Roberts said.
Dennis Dresang, the chairman of the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said the news articles about Mr. Thompson's contacts with top Philip Morris executives had hurt the governor's image because "people were suspicious of the phone calls." That suspicion was raised again, Professor Dresang said, when trips Mr. Thompson took with company executives to South Africa and Australia were disclosed.
The trips, in 1995 and 1996, were arranged by the National Governors' Association; Mr. Thompson was chairman of the group at the time. "There has been a bit of concern about whether the governor was promoting Wisconsin, or Philip Morris products," Professor Dresang said.
The trips were financed largely by Philip Morris through three nonprofit groups that promote free trade. Mr. Thompson said he learned of the company's involvement only later. In Australia, the delegation went scuba diving, and Mr. Thompson wrote to a Philip Morris lobbyist, John C. Lenzi, thanking him for taking "the scuba diving plunge with me" and encouraging Mr. Lenzi to visit the next time he was in Madison, the state capital. The correspondence was first disclosed by The Journal-Sentinel in 1997.
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Thompson's wife, Sue Ann, said it was "only natural" for him to maintain good ties with such an important corporate citizen. "I just know for a fact that he would not be influenced because of the dollars being spent on a trip or whatever," said Mrs. Thompson, the founder of a nonprofit women's health advocacy group. "Anyone who knows Tom knows that the decisions he makes are based on what's best for Wisconsin."