Philip Morris Lobbies Against Local Efforts to Curb Smoking
Soon after health officials in Dutchess County, N.Y., announced plans last year to prohibit smoking in restaurants, they realized that an unfamiliar lobbyist named John F. Gillespie was shadowing them whenever they publicly deliberated the issue. At heari
The officials eventually learned of Gillespie's mission. Just days before they were to approve the smoking ban in August, the County Legislature took the unprecedented step of voting to revoke their authority over such rules. The legislative measure was introduced by the majority leader, Mark Sheedy, who later acknowledged that it was based on a draft provided by Gillespie.
Gillespie identified himself to lawmakers as a lobbyist for the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, a trade group worried that a ban would drive away patrons. He did not volunteer that his primary client was Philip Morris, the world's largest cigarette maker, which has paid him as much as $4,000 a month to fight local smoking restrictions in the region north of New York City, according to company documents.
Local legislative bodies have become a crucial arena in the debate over smoking in New York, and Philip Morris has responded with a costly lobbying campaign, deploying a squad of lobbyists across the state, including three former state assemblymen. At the same time, the company is increasingly trying to keep its activities out of public view.
"Clearly, this is a part of the tentacles of the tobacco industry," Dr. Michael C. Caldwell, the Dutchess health commissioner, said after learning of Gillespie's ties to Philip Morris.
Philip Morris has often been able to challenge such proposed smoking restrictions without drawing attention to itself because most localities do not require the disclosure of lobbying expenses, as is mandated at state and federal levels. But Philip Morris's internal documents, which were revealed in litigation over smokers' damages, detail some of its efforts.
New York has historically had more grass-roots antismoking advocacy than the rest of the country, and the antismoking groups, emboldened by recent defeats of the tobacco industry nationally, are renewing their campaign for more local restrictions. Philip Morris, despite seeking to change its image recently by acknowledging links between smoking and cancer, is not backing down. Still, the company is shunning the spotlight, as it did when it helped defeat a ban on smoking in restaurants earlier this year in Wayne County, near Rochester.
"He was very careful about his presence," Michael Santelli, the leader of the Wayne County restaurant owners, said of the Philip Morris lobbyist there, former Assemblyman James Nagle. "He basically attended each meeting, but kept his mouth shut. He wanted to give us the tools to fight the fight."
Peggy Roberts, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris, which makes Marlboro and other brands, declined to comment on individual company lobbyists. But she said Philip Morris was not trying to conceal its lobbying. "You would have to be not paying much attention to think that we don't have a position in this area," she said. "We are very, very active, and openly so."
The company's internal documents show that Philip Morris has been spending at least $40,000 a month on local lobbying in New York -- and sometimes much more. Few companies have ever spent that much on lobbying in Albany or at the local level, where professional lobbyists are uncommon.
In Niagara County, the National Smokers Alliance, an advocacy group set up and largely financed by Philip Morris, paid for mailings by restaurateurs, as well as a suit in which a ban on smoking in restaurants adopted by county health officials was overturned on the grounds that the officials had overstepped their authority. The county then put in place more lenient rules based on a model used in Spokane, Wash. -- an idea urged by a Philip Morris lobbyist, Matthew Murphy, another former assemblyman.
In Westchester County, Philip Morris worked closely with the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, the same group linked to the company in the current fight in Dutchess County. The company paid the group to hire an influential local lobbyist, Albert J. Pirro Jr., in an unsuccessful bid to defeat a ban on smoking in restaurants in the county, according to the group's executive director, Scott Wexler. Many of the most populous counties have snubbed the company on some issues and enacted measures -- from bans on smoking in restaurants to restrictions on cigarette displays and advertising -- that are more restrictive than state laws. Still, most counties and localities in the state have not imposed such rules, in part because of the company's lobbying.
The antismoking groups have focused on regulating smoking at the local level because Philip Morris, a prominent player in Albany, has blocked tougher statewide restrictions in recent years.
The extent of Philip Morris's activities in the state capital was revealed in a recent investigation of the company by the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying.
Philip Morris admitted that Sharon T. Portnoy, its chief New York lobbyist, had underreported her state lobbying expenditures on mandatory disclosure records by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Such oversight does not exist on the local level.
The company's strategy was laid out in a speech that an executive, Tina A. Walls, gave to its lobbyists in 1993. According to her text, she emphasized that Philip Morris had to be well versed in local politics. Ms. Walls said the company's lobbyists should keep the company out of the media; create coalitions with other groups, such as restaurant associations, to "carry our baggage on issues"; and "try to change the focus" of debates on proposed restrictions by, for example, stressing freedom of speech and of choice rather than smokers' rights.
Those guidelines seem evident in the work of Gillespie, the Philip Morris lobbyist in Dutchess County. He apparently first played an important role for Philip Morris when the company successfully worked to derail a proposed ban on smoking in restaurants in Rockland County in 1994. At the time, Gillespie handed out business cards identifying himself as president of the Restaurant and Hospitality Association of Rockland.
Gillespie and the restaurant owners are continuing to fight the ban in Dutchess County, which applies to restaurants and other public places.
After the vote by the Republican-controlled Legislature limiting their power to restrict smoking, in August, health officials approved the ban anyway. The county executive, William R. Steinhaus, a Republican, then vetoed the Legislature's measure, allowing the ban to stand. It is not yet being enforced, and talks are being held on a compromise. .
In a brief telephone interview, Gillespie said he represented the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association, not Philip Morris. But he also acknowledged that he worked for a lobbying firm called Statewide Corporate Strategies.
The internal documents revealed in the smoking litigation show that since the early 1990's, Gillespie has either been paid directly by Philip Morris or by Statewide Corporate Strategies, which is retained by Philip Morris to oversee most of its local lobbying in the state and is run by Arthur J. Kremer, a powerful former assemblyman from Long Island. In recent years, Philip Morris has paid Statewide roughly $37,500 a month, according to the documents.
Reached by telephone for a follow-up interview, Gillespie declined to comment further.