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USA: Bush Cabinet Ties to Tobacco Lobby

by Marc KaufmanWashington Post
January 21st, 2001

As governor of Wisconsin, Health and Human Services Secretary- designate Tommy G. Thompson received more than $70,000 in campaign donations from the Philip Morris Cos. in the past seven years, and traveled abroad at least three times with company executives.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee in 1998, Attorney General nominee John D. Ashcroft was the only member to vote against a bill that would have curtailed the marketing activities of the tobacco industry nationwide.

And when Interior Secretary nominee Gale A. Norton was attorney general of Colorado, she resisted calls to sue the tobacco industry to recover health care costs, saying it would be costly and difficult to win. Although she later became involved in national settlement negotiations, other participants said she frequently took positions at odds with the public health groups.

Thompson, Ashcroft and Norton are among a number of figures in the Bush administration who have been relatively helpful to the tobacco industry and who could take positions that would signal a marked change in the federal government's approach to cigarette makers.

"The tobacco industry has connections to many Cabinet nominees and to top White House advisers," said Paul Billings, a spokesman for the American Lung Association. "They will have a lot of access to this administration, and we have to wonder how that will affect administration policies. There's not much here that's encouraging to us."

In addition to concerns about Thompson, Norton and Ashcroft, activists point to political strategist Karl Rove, who worked as a political consultant for Philip Morris from 1991 to 1996 and will become a senior White House adviser.

The Clinton administration aggressively supported anti-smoking efforts, most notably for the first time allowing the Food and Drug Administration to assert authority over the regulation of tobacco products. The Supreme Court overturned that assertion last year.

The administration also filed and funded a lawsuit against the industry over strong Republican objections. A federal judge threw out some of the charges in August, but allowed the racketeering charge to go forward to trial.

George W. Bush voiced discomfort with the suit during the campaign, and tobacco control advocates fear it won't survive long.

"During the last election, the tobacco industry spent millions of dollars in direct and soft money contributions, and the issue is what they want in return," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Since Bush was elected, the stock market has pushed up tobacco stocks dramatically. That means people think the administration will be doing their bidding."

While Vice President Gore campaigned as a tobacco-control advocate, Bush said little on the subject beyond his opposition to youth smoking. The tobacco industry donated almost $120,000 in hard and soft money in the past two years to the Bush campaign, according to the Campaign Study Group, a nonpartisan watchdog group. (Philip Morris also donated $100,000 for the inaugural, the company said.)

The Study Group also reports that the National Republican Senate Committee received almost $1.4 million from tobacco interests in the past two years. (Former senator Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), sworn in yesterday as secretary of the Department of Energy, also received $26,000 from tobacco interests, the group said.)

Although Norton would have no apparent role to play regarding tobacco in the Bush administration, Thompson and Ashcroft would both be major players.

Ashcroft voted consistently with the tobacco industry in the Senate, and has voiced strong opposition to the federal government's racketeering lawsuit against the industry, anti-smoking activists say. A nonsmoker, he has, however, refused direct tobacco industry contributions for some years.

But anti-smoking activists are most concerned about Thompson because as head of HHS he would have the most direct role in tobacco issues.

As governor, Thompson has had especially warm relations with executives from Philip Morris -- a major employer in Wisconsin. Thompson resisted many anti-smoking efforts, and Wisconsin has relatively high smoking rates as a result, the activists say, though he also ultimately signed some measures they applauded.

They point with particular dismay to his veto of a bill requiring the state to spend money from a national tobacco settlement along guidelines established by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because the head of HHS oversees that agency.

A spokesman for Thompson, Kevin Keane, rejected the criticism and said the gvernor "is very much anti-smoking, particularly with youth."

"He's a man known to walk up to a young person smoking and take the cigarette out of his hands," Keane said. "If he sees a staff member with cigarettes, he crumbles them up and throws them in the garbage."

As governor of Wisconsin, Thompson was supported by tobacco interests, receiving almost $100,000 from 1993 to 2000, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. More than $70,000 of that came from executives at Philip Morris -- which owns Oscar Mayer Foods and Miller Brewing, both major state employers.

"Obviously, there has been a very close relationship between the governor and Philip Morris, and tobacco interests generally," said Mike McCabe, president of the Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending.

Peggy Roberts, spokeswoman for Philip Morris, said that it was "incumbent on us to have a good relationship with Governor Thompson because we're the second largest employer in the state. We pay a lot of taxes there."

Thompson spokesman Keane said of the governor's relationship with Philip Morris: "The anti-tobacco critics can live in a pure and ideal world and support a policy of never having to deal with Philip Morris. The governor didn't have that luxury because Philip Morris is such an important employer. And we think some positive things came from that relationship."

Thompson was criticized in Wisconsin for trips he took to Australia (in 1996), to Southern Africa (1995) and to England (1992) with executives and lobbyists from Philip Morris. The trips were organized through the National Governors' Association, but were financed largely with money from groups sponsored by Philip Morris. Thompson later said that he didn't know the trips were substantially paid for by Philip Morris and that he wouldn't have gone if he had known. But critics note that Thompson was aware that Philip Morris officials were on the trip and sent letters of thanks to them.

A study by the Saint Louis University School of Public Health in St. Louis concluded that in 1996, Wisconsin ranked 49th in legislative action to control tobacco use, according to information from the National Cancer Institute. The high school smoking rate in Wisconsin is 36 percent, just above the national average, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Wisconsin is now 13th in terms of funding tobacco control, following recent legislative approval of $23.5 million annual funding for state anti-tobacco efforts, according to the group. Thompson signed that appropriation but had initially proposed spending only $2.5 million yearly for that program.

The question of how much of the $246 billion national tobacco settlement states should spend on anti-tobacco efforts has become a contentious one. Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, who helped negotiate the settlement, said that Texas has spent little of its tobacco money on anti-tobacco programs and that he hopes the Bush administration in Washington will have a different attitude.

"The states have a great opportunity to change public health dramatically, and I'm afraid that some states and many people will be missing the boat," Moore said. "This is an issue where Tommy Thompson can now have a big impact" by encouraging states to fund anti-tobacco programs aggressively.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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