Tobacco ties of governor attacked
Some anti-smoking activists think Gov. Tommy Thompson's long ties to the tobacco industry should disqualify him from becoming secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The same critics, however, doubt that Thompson's relationship with Philip Morris and other tobacco companies will unravel his nomination.
"When and if he is confirmed, I want to make sure they hold his feet to the fire when tobacco issues come up," said Bonnie Sumner, president of the Wisconsin Initiative on Smoking and Health in Milwaukee. "I think he is not suited to run this department. He has a bad record on tobacco."
Thompson has visited three continents at the expense of major tobacco companies, including a trip to Australia that involved a scuba diving excursion with a tobacco lobbyist.
Thompson has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from tobacco interests and was criticized for delaying Wisconsin's entry into a lawsuit against tobacco companies.
After that lawsuit was settled, Thompson proposed spending only $5 million of Wisconsin's $170-million-a-year share on smoking prevention. He ultimately signed a bill that gave $23.5 million for the effort.
Alicia Peterson, a spokeswoman for President-elect George W. Bush's transition team, insisted Thompson "has a record of opposing youth access to tobacco and tobacco products." Others note Thompson signed four tobacco tax increases in Wisconsin and supported a ban on smoking in the Capitol.
Peterson said Bush selected the Wisconsin governor for HHS because he is "a national leader in welfare reform and health-care reform."
The U.S. Senate Finance Committee is tentatively scheduled to hold a hearing on Thompson's nomination next Thursday.
Despite criticism from some anti-smoking activists, few public health officials have voiced strong opposition to Thompson's nomination.
Dr. Mark Andrew of Viroqua, a general surgeon and board chairman of the State Medical Society of Wisconsin, said his group hasn't taken a position on Thompson's nomination. Neither has the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association or the American Cancer Society.
Speaking for his group, Andrew said: "We do look at it that he's been a strong supporter and done a lot of innovative things on health care in our state, such as BadgerCare," a state-run health insurance program for the working poor.
As far as Thompson's record on smoking issues, "We're not entirely negative on him," Andrew said.
Among the Thompson-tobacco industry links cited by anti-tobacco activists:
During the 1990s, Thompson traveled to England, Africa and Australia on trips arranged by the National Governors Association and substantially funded by Philip Morris through three nonprofit groups created to promote free trade. He said at the time he wasn't aware of the company's backing and might not have gone if he had.
"I value your loyalty and friendship," Thompson wrote Andrew Whist, a Philip Morris senior vice president, after the Africa trip in 1995. Following the 1996 to Australia, Thompson wrote Philip Morris lobbyist Jack Lenzi that he was "especially grateful you agreed to take the scuba diving plunge with me."
Between 1993 and 2000, Thompson collected nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions from executives and political action committees of major tobacco companies and their subsidiaries, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
As governor, Thompson signed a smokers' rights bill, vetoed a ban on smoking in the general seating area at the Milwaukee Brewers' new stadium, and vetoed legislation that would have let cities impose stricter rules on tobacco than exist in state law.
Thompson's supporters argue that Philip Morris, through its non-tobacco food and beer subsidiaries, is Wisconsin's largest employer and he had no choice but to support the company.
Even critics of Thompson concede that once he agreed to let the state join the lawsuit against tobacco companies to recover health-care costs, he backed it strongly.
"While the governor has not been a champion of tobacco control," said Rachel Tyree, an American Cancer Society spokeswoman, "his record has been improving."