Philip Morris-backed Tobacco Control Bills Criticized
Public health and anti-tobacco groups have criticized similar bills sponsored by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) that would allow the
href="http://www.fda.gov/">FDA to regulate tobacco products, saying that the measures do not go far enough and that they are "actually smoke screens supported by tobacco giant Philip Morris Cos. Inc.," National Journal reports. The bills' critics say that "the politics of fundraising" may be involved. Davis is chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Frist is chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the last federal election cycle, Philip Morris gave 82% of its $3.4 million to Republicans, with the NRSC receiving $570,550 and the NRCC receiving $571,578. Frist and Davis, however, have denied any such connection, and say their legislation represents the best possible compromise on a contentious issue. Under their bills, supported by Philip Morris, a separate entity within the FDA would be established to regulate tobacco. The Davis bill (HR 2180), while not allowing the FDA to ban tobacco, would cover herbal cigarettes and "would bar tobacco companies from making claims of reduced risk without FDA approval and would prohibit false or misleading claims." However, public health groups have called Davis' and Frist's (S 190) proposals "smoke screens" for Philip Morris, which is one of only a small number of tobacco company that have endorsed federal regulation of tobacco products. Paul Billings of the American Lung Association, said, "It is certainly quite a shocking coincidence that the heads of the Republican campaign committee in the House and Senate are sponsoring these bills. We continue to ask the question, 'What are these contributions buying?'" The lung association, along with the American Heart Association, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society support alternative bills that would allow the FDA to regulate tobacco as a drug. They say the Davis bill "would not do enough to protect children from tobacco marketing, would not automatically prohibit terms such as 'light' or 'low tar' in tobacco advertising" and would not allow the FDA to "require industry-wide modifications for safer cigarettes." Discussing the Frist bill, Caren Benjamin, press secretary for Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a co-sponsor of one of the stricter proposals, said, "It would make it difficult, if not impossible, to protect kids from tobacco companies' marketing."
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Davis, however, rejects any link between campaign contributions and his position on the issue. "I'm sick of these self-righteous groups. ... My conscience is clear. They can call me the 'Marlboro Man.' Whatever. It's garbage." Davis, whose father, a smoker, died from emphysema, said that his support for FDA regulation will likely have a negative effect on his fundraising abilities, as almost every tobacco company besides Philip Morris is opposed to regulation. And Frist spokesperson Margaret Camp said that the senator's "shift" in his position on the issue -- in 1998 he joined Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in unsuccessfully pushing for a "tougher measure" -- occurred during the last Congress, "long before he began considering running for the NRSC job." Davis says that the public health groups are "letting the pretty good be the enemy of the perfect," adding that the alternative measures probably cannot gain Congressional approval. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), one of the two Senate co-sponsors of the Frist bill, said, "There will be some who say this bill goes too far, and others who say it doesn't go far enough. I see it as a good starting point for discussion on a difficult issue" (Steel, National Journal, 7/7).