Davis's Bill On Tobacco Is Criticized
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) is drawing criticism from both cigarette makers and public health advocates over a bill he has introduced to regulate the tobacco industry.
They contend that Davis, who represents part of Northern Virginia and also is a leading fundraiser for the Republican Party, is doing the bidding of industry leader Philip Morris Cos. -- a top contributor to the Republican campaign committee that Davis chairs.
Davis's National Youth Smoking Reduction Act of 2001 would authorize the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco for the first time. The bill's focus "is to keep our children away from tobacco products" through strict marketing limits, Davis said.
But rival companies complain that such limits are rigged to protect Philip Morris, which already controls more than half the U.S. market. And anti-smoking groups say it is packed with loopholes designed to head off tougher regulations.
"We cannot view this bill as anything other than an attempt to allow Philip Morris to corner the market on behalf of its dominant brand -- amounting to little more than a 'Marlboro Monopoly Act,' " said Steven C. Watson, vice president of external affairs at Lorillard Tobacco Co., which opposes the bill along with Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
At the root of such suspicions is Philip Morris's status as the country's biggest political soft-money contributor. The New York firm, formerly based in Richmond, has donated $9.5 million since 1992, $8.1 million to the GOP.
The company gave Davis's National Republican Congressional Committee $535,000 for the 2000 elections. Last winter, the committee's finance director, Abby Pearlman, jumped to Philip Morris's Washington office. In the Senate, legislation similar to Davis's is being sponsored by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Through a spokesman, Davis dismissed accusations of undue influence. "This isn't about any of that. This is about curbing youth smoking in a way that can gain political support," aide David Marin said.
But supporters of tougher regulations also contend that the bill is tailor-made for Philip Morris. "This is clearly the bill that Philip Morris wanted introduced," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "It is not a coincidence that the two members of Congress who have introduced bills quietly supported by Philip Morris and opposed by the entire public health community are the respective chairmen of the Republican Senate and House finance committees."
The bill would set a national standard on such matters as labeling, advertising and health and safety. Health groups seek tighter regulation of nicotine as a drug and a requirement that companies show a decrease in child tobacco usage.
Marin says Davis's bill offers a fair compromise, particularly for moderate House Republicans. "Whether we're talking about campaign finance reform or a patients' bill of rights, he has seen some of these issues gain steam without a good, solid middle-of-the-road [option] out there," Marin said. "He wants an alternative."
Philip Morris Senior Vice President Steven C. Parrish called the cash and political connections "a pure coincidence" exploited by opponents of action, noting the irony of health groups siding with tobacco firms opposed to the regulation.
Parrish acknowledged that the company has lobbied dozens of lawmakers for regulation similar to Davis's approach but said Philip Morris has "significant problems" with the bill and did not back it. But, he added, "if it becomes part of a process that develops into a bipartisan effort to address the issue in a sensible way instead of just having an issue to argue about . . . it would be a good thing."
Although Davis's role may make smart political sense nationally, it may be a tougher sell at home. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who represents adjoining Alexandria and Arlington County, calls Davis his "best friend in the Congress." But, he added, "what gives me cause for concern on this bill is that Philip Morris endorses it. I think on some of these issues you simply can't make all of the people happy all of the time."
Fairfax Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence), who has flirted with a Davis challenge, already has seized on the issue. "This is what comes from selling your soul for campaign cash," he said.
Action is unlikely this year, given Bush administration priorities, but could become part of a national settlement of federal legal claims.
Mary Aronson, a Washington-based tobacco litigation analyst, said: "The industry is trying to position itself to get the best of all worlds, seeking the kind of regulation it wants, and in exchange . . . they're hoping the feds will be willing to bring an end to a suit that this administration doesn't like to begin with."