Tobacco Lobby Gets Rude Jolt as Lawmakers Weigh Cigarette Bills
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Torn between mounting medical evidence and the nation’s multibillion-dollar tobacco industry, Congress is wrestling over how far to go in discouraging Americans from smoking.
Moves ranging from a cigarette advertising ban to higher cigarette taxes are in the hopper or are on the way as critics of the industry prepare to resume an anti-smoking drive that fizzled last year.
The debate was barely under way when the Tobacco Institute, whose 97 staff members campaign full-time on behalf of U.S. cigarette makers, came in for a jolt from Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
The 33-year-old lawmaker from tobacco country arrived last Tuesday to deliver the kind of talk the institute pays $1,000 a crack to hear from favored lawmakers.
While Cooper did pocket the standard honorarium, his remarks did anything but put industry minds at ease. He ripped into cigarette companies for insensitivity to growers and health concerns alike. Eyebrows were raised.
″While I was characterized at the meeting as anti-tobacco, I’m not anti- tobacco,″ says Cooper, a graduate of the University of North Carolina and Harvard Law School. ″I’m anti-cancer. I’m pro-grower. I think it’s important for the industry to face up to the mounting health evidence against their product and not to hide their head in the sand as if it didn’t exist.″
″To me their approach is that as long as they can find one doctor left in the United States who says that cigarette smoking isn’t harmful, they’re going to believe it’s not harmful,″ he says.
Institute officials refused to comment on the session. But afterward Philip Morris, one of the nation’s largest cigarette makers, announced a response to another concern of Cooper and tobacco-state lawmakers: A halt in purchases of low-cost imported tobacco for the rest of the year - thus easing fears of U.S. growers who like other farmers are feeling the pinch of the nation’s trade imbalance.
Other cigarette makers are considering a similar move, and suspicions linger that Cooper’s remarks represent a sharp reminder to the industry that its own health is closely tied to that of growers.
Key Southern congressmen remain fiercely loyal to tobacco growers despite mounting criticism of smoking.
″I don’t think we need Big Daddy from Washington inserting his nose into our business, saying whether or not we should smoke or chew or otherwise consume tobacco,″ says Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., an industry champion who calls it ″frightening″ that anyone would consider an advertising ban.
″I’m not saying there is or is not a conscience problem,″ Coble says about legislation to aid the tobacco industry. ″I know there is a censorship problem.″ He objects to efforts to ″muzzle a perfectly lawful product and say you can’t advertise a perfectly lawful product.″
Rep. Charles Rose, D-N.C., while more moderate in tone, nevertheless concedes that if he were to vote against tobacco subsidies, ″I would probably be confronted with a petition from the local citizens that I be examined at North Carolina’s mental hospital.″
″I think your conscience could bother you,″ Rose says, ″if you were telling the American people that smoking is not a hazardous occupation. If you do something like that, then probably you are going to lose a little sleep at night. But growing and selling tobacco is a legal occupation in the United States right now and I don’t want to see First Amendment rights to free speech tampered with at the 200th anniversary of the Constitution.″
″I don’t want to see tobacco companies prohibited from advertising their products,″ he adds.
Nonsense, retorts Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., waving a sheaf of court opinions to bolster his legislation to ban cigarette ads from magazines, newspapers and elsewhere.
″The problem is clear and it is time for Congress to eliminate the deceptive advertisements that entice young people to take up an addictive habit that kills Americans at the unprecedented rate of 1,000 every day,″ Synar told a news conference last week.
Scott Stapf, assistant to the president of the Tobacco Institute, scoffs at the notion that Synar’s bill will succeed in 1987 after failing last year, although he acknowledges it will ″chew up a lot of show trial-type hearing time.″ And he adds that such sessions, despite heavy news media coverage, are not always that bad for tobacco interests.
″From our standpoint, we’d rather discuss that issue than some other issues,″ he says.
Cigarette makers spent an estimated $2.1 billion on advertising in 1985.
An estimated 50 million Americans are smokers. The percentage among men has dropped from 52.9 in 1964 to less than 33 percent today. Among women, it was 24.5 percent in 1955, rising to 34.1 percent in 1965 and falling to 28 percent in 1985, according to government figures.
Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., has offered legislation to end the tax deductibility of cigarette advertising, an enormous advantage for the industry, while Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., is seeking to double the excise tax on tobacco from 16 cents to 32 cents. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., would abolish the subsidy that enables military PXs to cut cigarette prices.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, has introduced a resolution to ban smoking in the Senate wing of the Capitol.