When the Washington watchdog group Public Citizen put out a report last month on tobacco-industry campaign contributions to lawmakers, it slapped on the title ”Sweethearts of Big Tobacco.” But the romance between industry donors and their friends on Capitol Hill may be turning sour.
Some erstwhile congressional allies are stepping up their anti-tobacco rhetoric as evidence of possible industry misdeeds continues to surface. So tobacco executives are increasingly pinning their hopes—and an ever-larger share of their contributions—on the one group that’s never let them down: members of Congress from tobacco-producing states.
Even congressional stalwarts from such key tobacco states as Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, however, are struggling with divided loyalties.
To be sure, tobacco-state lawmakers—including Sens. Wendell H. Ford, D-Ky., and Jesse A. Helms, R-N.C., and Reps. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., R-Va., and Ed Whitfield, R-Ky.—still top Public Citizen’s list of tobacco-money reci pients. But the big worry for these members as Congress labors to produce a mammoth tobacco bill is how to placate farmers and growers, not industry titans.
Farmers were the one group left out of the national tobacco settlement that the industry negotiated with a group of state attorneys general and trial lawyers last June. The settlement called on tobacco companies to pay $ 368.5 billion over 25 years to finance health and antismoking programs, and offered them protection from class-action lawsuits.
The negotiators’ failure to address the concerns of tobacco growers riled both farmers and their Hill representatives. ”When the settlement was announced on June 20, the growers felt a large sense of betrayal,” said Albert K. Glass, who directs the Virginia Farm Bureau’s community and marketing department. Industry officials ”were looking out for their interests, and we were left out.”
Fallout from last year’s deal may help explain the hard line that Bliley has taken with the industry. With a district that represents both farmers and employees of Philip Morris Cos. Inc., Bliley has long been considered one of Congress’s staunchest tobacco defenders; and as Commerce Committee chairman, he will play a pivotal role in shaping tobacco legislation. But this year, he’s subpoenaed and publicized thousands of incriminating documents from cigarette makers. He’s also accused industry leaders of ”unacceptable” behavior.
A Commerce aide insisted that Bliley’s ”views on tobacco are the same that they’ve been for ages, and that is that informed adults should be able to (smoke) but that teenagers should not.” In any case, Bliley is playing his cards close to his chest; he’s held hearings but has yet to draft a proposal.
It’s fallen to his committee’s other tobacco-state members—Reps. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Whitfield—to begin filling in the blanks. So far, they’ve focused squarely on the need to protect the nation’s 124,000 tobacco farmers from economic devastation. (A congressional deal that jacks up cigarette taxes and curbs consumption could, by some estimates, lower tobacco sales as much as 30 per cent over five years.) Tobacco-state Senators have likewise made defending farmers their top concern.
At issue in both chambers is the fate of the federal tobacco price-support system, which limits the total amount of tobacco that may be grown in the United States and guarantees a minimum price for farmers. Ford and Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., have introduced measures that would compensate farmers for lost ”quota,” that is, the amount of tobacco each farmer may sell under government rules. (Quota is a marketable asset that farmers buy and sell among themselves.)
The focus on growers by lawmakers from tobacco states is nothing new, of course; it’s long been more popular to defend family farmers than to go to bat for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. or Philip Morris. In the past, industry leaders could count on farmers to shield them politically, and their interests were virtually synonymous.
But recently, growers have begun to find their own voice. As tobacco company executives increasingly looked overseas for profits, U.S. growers worried about the price of tobacco back home lobbied more vigorously to defend their unique interests.
Several groups representing growers, including the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Inc. and the Virginia Tobacco Growers Association, have formed an unusual coalition with a long list of health organizations, from the American Heart Association to the American Cancer Society. This odd alliance of growers and public health advocates met the week of March 16 to announce a series of ”core principles,” including the need for farmers to be compensated for lost quota and the importance of strong laws to prevent tobacco products from being sold or marketed to teenagers.
”(Tobacco) companies do not like what we’re doing, obviously,” said Scott D. Ballin, a Washington consultant who works on behalf of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and who helped bring the two camps together. The coalition between growers and health groups, Ballin added, ”makes it difficult for tobacco-state members (of Congress) to use the farmers as a front for protecting the companies.”
Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., an outspoken tobacco foe, noted, ”There’s a difference between the goals” of the tobacco industry and those of the tobacco farmers. ”In the past, whenever legislation was presented that had anything to do with tobacco, there had always been a solid front between those representing tobacco companies and the farmers,” Waxman said. ”But I don’t think their interests are the same now.”
Industry representatives deny that tobacco executives and farmers are at odds. The growers’ fate is of great concern to tobacco companies, said industry spokesman Scott Williams. Tobacco farmers were not included in last year’s agreement, Williams said, because they were not part of the litigation being settled.
Industry negotiator J. Phil Carlton, a North Carolina lobbyist, said ”there has always been a natural tension between buyer and seller. There’s nothing unusual about that.” Still, Carlton acknowledged that hard-to-resolve questions over how best to help growers have slowed the pace of the tobacco negotiations on Capitol Hill. ”We are looking forward to getting the grower issue resolved,” Carlton said, ”because we believe it will help solve the whole issue” of what form tobacco legislation finally takes.
A complicating factor is that not all tobacco farmers think alike. U.S. farmers principally grow two tobacco types, known as flue-cured and burley, which place different economic demands on growers. Flue-cured tobacco is more capital-intensive, for example, while burley is more labor-intensive. As a result, burley growers are very price-sensitive, while flue-cured-tobacco farmers are more interested in keeping production high.
The upshot is that Ford, who represents mainly burley growers, and Robb, whose state is home to flue-cured-tobacco producers, have divergent plans for how to help U.S. farmers. Ford’s proposal would continue the government price-support program, for example; Robb’s would replace it with a privatized system that would still limit the overall tobacco supply. One compromise may be to let different types of farmers follow different sets of government rules.
Some on Capitol Hill, including Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R- Ind., and Rep. Thomas W. Ewing, R-Ill., have set out to end the government’s tobacco price-support program altogether. The program’s only costs are administrative, but ”even as a no-cost program, it’s been a lightning rod for attack,” Ewing noted.
Defending growers, in fact, has proved complicated and time-consuming for members of Congress from tobacco states. As a result, they have not taken as aggressive a lead in crafting an overall tobacco deal as some had expected. Once the grower issue is settled, Carlton predicted, tobacco-state lawmakers will start playing a more visible role in pushing through a comprehensive bill.
Tobacco-state lawmakers may well be tempted to kiss and make up with industry executives. Some of these members are counting on a comprehensive settlement to pay for the billions in federal assistance that they hope to furnish farmers. Farmers’ disagreements with industry executives won’t mean much, moreover, if tobacco companies move overseas or go out of business. ”My concern lies primarily with the farmers,” Whitfield said. ”But the farmers are obviously not going to be able to make a living unless the companies stay in the United States.”
But even some tobacco-state lawmakers warn that sweeping legislation, particularly a deal that grants the companies’ request for protection from lawsuits, may not be politically feasible this year. ”Given the political dynamics of a short legislative year, and the current distractions at the White House, I think a comprehensive deal is very difficult to achieve this year,” said Burr.
If negotiations to protect companies from liability fall apart, Congress may revert to a less-ambitious plan. A scaled- back tobacco bill would very likely take aim at teen smoking, and raise cigarette taxes to pay for compensating tobacco farmers. If Congress resorts to this ”lite” version of tobacco legislation, it will be the industry executives’ turn to feel left out.
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