Tobacco Reform Said Hurt by Political Donations
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Anti-smoking groups have issued a scathing report charging that millions of dollars in political contributions by cigarette makers were thwarting efforts to regulate tobacco.
Tobacco interests have given $32 million to candidates and political parties since 1995, including nearly $200,000 to political action committees benefiting Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, according to the report.
The study was issued on Wednesday by the American Heart Association (news - web sites), the American Lung Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the public interest group Common Cause.
In return, the groups alleged that lawmakers threw up hurdles to legislation opposed by the tobacco industry, including a measure to give the Food and Drug Administration (news - web sites) the power to restrict the sale of tobacco products to minors and limit advertising and marketing by tobacco companies.
They cited a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) review showing cigarette advertising on the rise in spite of a settlement with states aimed at restricting outdoor ads and brand-name sponsorships.
According to the FTC, the five largest cigarette manufacturers spent $8.24 billion on advertising and promotions in 1999, a 22.3 percent increase from 1998 and the most ever reported to the commission.
``This is all about purchasing the desired degree of inaction from a compliant Congress. Sadly, the evidence indicates that their money was well spent,'' said Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger.
The groups released their report less than a week before the Senate was scheduled to open debate on legislation by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, that would ban unregulated ``soft-money'' donations to political parties and restrict ``issue ads'' by independent groups.
Calling U.S. tobacco policy ``one of the clearest examples of how campaign contributions have distorted the political process to protect special interests rather than the public interest,'' the groups urged Congress to reform the fund-raising system, arguing that lives were at stake. Smoking kills more than 400,000 Americans a year and is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.
MONEY FOR VOTES?
In their report, the anti-smoking groups said they found a ''strong correlation'' between political contributions U.S. lawmakers received from Philip Morris Cos. Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and other tobacco interests, and how they voted on tobacco-related issues.
In a series of votes between 1997 and 2000, members of the House and the Senate who had received sizable contributions from tobacco interests voted against major reforms, including funding for the Justice Department (news - web sites)'s lawsuit against the tobacco companies, according to the report.
Anti-smoking groups singled out Republicans for criticism. Since 1995, tobacco interests have contributed $20.4 million, or 82 percent of their total federal hard and soft-money contributions, to Republican candidates and campaign committees. In the 2000 election cycle, the tobacco industry gave $6.3 million to Republican candidates and committees.
In contrast, the tobacco industry has given just over $4.4 million since 1995 to Democratic candidates and national party committees, including $1.2 million in the 2000 elections.
At the same time, the report alleged that tobacco companies and their lobbyists provided ``enormous amounts of additional financial assistance'' to lawmakers by subsidizing their air travel and funding major political events.
For example, Philip Morris provided $250,000 to help finance the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. Tobacco companies also contributed amounts ranging from $50,000 to $750,000 to university academic centers named for Republican Sens. Lott, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.
To maximize their influence, the report said tobacco companies targeted political action committees controlled by congressional leaders, including Rep. John Boehner (news - bio - voting record) of Ohio, the new Republican chairman of the House Education Committee. Boehner's Freedom Project allegedly received the most money from tobacco interests -- $120,500 since 1995.
Common Cause said passage of campaign finance reform should help rein in special interests including tobacco. Still anti-smoking groups and their congressional allies conceded they faced an uphill fight passing tobacco legislation given Republican control of Congress and the White House. ``This is going to be a real test of the new administration,'' said Matthew Myers, head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.