Philip Morris Seeks Backers for Tobacco Legislation
Three years after its last attempt to spur legislation that would have empowered the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the marketing of cigarettes, Philip Morris is shopping around the contours of a bill that would, once again, let the agency limit
The company's latest endeavor comes just one year after winning a Supreme Court ruling that the F.D.A. does not have the authority to regulate cigarettes as a drug or a medical device. Yet the company is still hoping lawmakers will enable the agency to limit tobacco marketing, curb youth smoking and require more warning labels on cigarette packs.
In recent months, Philip Morris says it has met with Congressional leaders from both parties, as well as most of the members of the Senate and House committees that oversee the F.D.A., searching for a champion for its regulatory agenda. What it has found, however, is that volunteers are in very short supply.
"There hasn't even been a hearing," said Steven C. Parrish, head of legislative affairs for Philip Morris. "It's going to be tough to get anything passed this year."
Not that Philip Morris is masquerading as an antitobacco crusader. On the contrary, the company believes that regulation will actually make it easier to do business, setting a single standard on issues like labeling instead of a different one for every state. With the F.D.A.'s blessing, cigarette companies could also start selling so-called safer cigarettes, which contain fewer carcinogens, without worrying that the agency would punish them for making unapproved health claims.
But aside from a general skepticism about regulation among many Republicans and a distrust of the company's motives by many Democrats, Philip Morris is fast finding that tobacco is no longer the pressing issue in Congress that it was just a few years ago.
In 1998, under mounting pressure from antismoking advocates and state attorneys general, the tobacco industry enlisted lawmakers from both parties to create legislation that included the regulation of cigarette marketing and advertising. Spearheaded by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, the effort quickly disintegrated into a partisan brawl as legislators piled amendments upon amendments, trying to fashion a bill to their liking.
Alarmed at how sweeping the legislation became, the tobacco industry then spent tens of millions of dollars to kill it. The bill died after a month of intense debate on the Senate floor, and many lawmakers are still smarting from the conflict.
Now, with a legislative calendar that has been heavily weighted toward campaign finance reform and a tax cut, Philip Morris is having a hard time getting lawmakers, many of whom have supported the regulation of cigarettes in the past, to revisit the issue that occupied so much of the national consciousness in the 1990's.
"With this administration, there's a sense that tobacco legislation just isn't going anywhere," said William V. Corr, vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Members feel like it's a really hard issue to move, so let's go onto something else."
Lawmakers may also be wary of taking up an issue that the rest of the industry is likely to rebuff. Other companies are not joining Philip Morris's legislative campaign, in part because its brands are so dominant that they would probably be less affected by restrictions on advertising. In fact, some competitors fear that Philip Morris is merely trying to lock up its market advantage in perpetuity.
A few bills have been introduced this year, particularly in the House, that go far beyond what Philip Morris has proposed. They treat nicotine as a drug and seek to penalize cigarette makers if child tobacco use does not decrease. But they are essentially reiterations of bills that were introduced last year to no effect, and it is unclear whether they have enough bipartisan support to make it out of committee for a vote.
That may change with control of the Senate changing hands. With the departure of Senator James M. Jeffords of Vermont from the Republican Party, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, will become chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which oversees the F.D.A. He has already pledged to hold hearings on tobacco regulation.
"It gives us the platform that we need to focus on the issue," said James Manley, a spokesman for Senator Kennedy. "What doesn't change is that we still need 60 votes to get anything through the Senate."
Some analysts wonder whether Philip Morris is courting legislation that it will ultimately disdain, especially if the shift in the Senate opens the door for antismoking advocates to insert more restrictions than the company anticipates.
"It resembles a yard of beer," said Charles Gabriel, senior political analyst for Prudential Securities. "One degree at the wrong angle and it's all over your face."