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Cass Wheeler, the CEO of the venerable American Heart Association, has a score to settle with the tobacco lobby. His father was a heavy smoker. And while his dad passed away from cardiovascular-related disease, Wheeler believes his dad’s ultimate demise was tied to tobacco. As a result Wheeler’s gotten involved with the anti-tobacco groups in a big way. Now Wheeler and the association, which has more than 20 million volunteers and supporters, is using its muscle to support a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration — for the first time — the authority to regulate tobacco. For Wheeler, who has been pushing for the legislation since he began at the association nearly 10 years ago, it’s a no-brainer. “Macaroni and cheese is regulated,” says Wheeler of the Kraft Foods Inc. product. Kraft’s parent company, Altria Group Inc., owns the tobacco giant Philip Morris International Inc. “So the same company that makes macaroni and cheese makes Marlboros, and they don’t have to disclose how much nicotine is in their products? How crazy is that?” Only if one thinks it’s Orwellian for Altria to back the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which it strongly does. Yet the motives may be less than altruistic. The rest of the tobacco industry, which except for Philip Morris is doing everything it can to thwart the legislation, see Philip Morris as trying to squeeze out competitors like R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. because they dominate the market of lower-nicotine cigarettes. Put more bluntly by a tobacco lobbyist who is working against the measure: “They are paying the cannibals to be the last ones to eat.” The legislation would give the FDA authority to place further restrictions on tobacco advertising and require lower nicotine content in products. The issue has created a fissure between Philip Morris and the rest of the industry as they duke it out over the measure, which was born out of the Master Settlement Agreement reached between tobacco companies and state attorneys general, to pay for tobacco-related illnesses that were burdening the Medicare system. (Altria and Philip Morris declined to comment for this story.) The new bill, which is slated for a markup in mid-May, would create an entirely new regime, if passed. Currently, the tobacco industry is regulated by a variety of entities, including the Department of Agriculture, Federal Trade Commission, and Department of Health and Human Services. “When people say, �We don’t need more regulation,’ our response is, �It makes no sense for this country’s most dangerous consumer product to be its least-regulated product,’ ” says Matthew Myers, president and CEO of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and chief proponent of the measure. “The tobacco interests give, literally, millions of dollars in campaign contributions and have proven that they will say anything and do anything to prevent Congress from acting.” BEWARE THE BOGEYMAN Big Tobacco is everyone’s favorite bogeyman. For years, the lobby largely operated under the radar, and enjoyed its heyday during Republican dominance when politicians who largely frowned upon additional regulation were in power. Despite its split over the FDA measure and declining fortunes in the United States, the tobacco lobby still has significant clout and gives sizably to lawmakers. In the 2006 election cycle, the industry gave more than $19 million in campaign contributions, the lion’s share coming from Altria ($12.8 million), according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Altria also knows its friends. According to disclosure forms filed with the Federal Elections Commission, the company forked over $12,000 during the 2005-2006 cycle to Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who is the chief Republican co-sponsor of the FDA legislation in the House. The lobby also throws money to its in-house lobbying teams. Last year alone, UST Public Affairs Inc., which makes smokeless tobacco products such as Copenhagen and Skoal, spent $1.6 million in-house while its rival, Altria, spent $12.8 on lobbying, including the FDA tobacco bill. This is not the first time the bill has surfaced. In 2004, the measure passed the Senate but it was stripped out of a House committee by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who during the 2006 election cycle (before he backed out) received more than $17,000 in campaign contributions from tobacco political action committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While such cloak-and-dagger activity has served the industry well, it’s now facing a measure that has significant bipartisan backing and would bring about greater regulation for an industry already weakened nearly 10 years after the Master Settlement. Additionally, the legislation has been around for a decade and sponsorship has remained steady. As a result, congressional staffers say that this time it’s impenetrable to any last-minute stripping or add-on amendments designed to cripple it, especially with Democrats in power. Still, the industry’s lobbyists, sans Philip Morris, are pushing forward to block the measure through the time-honed tactics of doubt and delay. To that end, it’s employed several top lobbyists, including James Hirni, a former lobbyist at Cassidy & Associates who left in March to start his own gig and is representing UST Public Affairs. They are also represented by C2 Group, Venable, and Bracewell and Giuliani’s James Chapman. Additionally, Barbour Griffith & Rogers, American Defense International Inc., and King & Spalding are some of the firms lobbying for R.J. Reynolds, according to Senate records. Former Rep. Thomas Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) is also lending a hand. While in Congress, he chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee at the time of the Master Settlement Agreement. Bliley, now a senior government affairs adviser for Steptoe & Johnson, is representing the Tobacco Products Manufacturers Coalition supported by Lorillard Tobacco Co. and R.J. Reynolds. According to a half-dozen lobbyists for the tobacco industry, all of whom declined to be quoted, the longer it takes to move the bill forward, the more questions will arise from what they see as a growing body of lawmakers skeptical of the bill’s effectiveness. Tobacco lobbyists have also been targeting lawmakers fearful of more government regulation and have asked whether the arguably overwhelmed FDA is best equipped to deal with the new regulation. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he will not vote for the measure despite the bill having the support of 12 Republicans. Lobbyists are also targeting other tobacco-friendly lawmakers like Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who hails from a state that produces a huge amount of tobacco. He’s also on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill. “We’re pointing out why the FDA is the wrong agency,” according to another lobbyist representing one of the tobacco companies opposed to the bill. “This is the very agency that is already overwhelmed as evidenced by spinach, pet food, and Vioxx. It’s a product they don’t want to regulate.” Indeed, FDA Administrator Andrew von Eschenbach said in a March interview that there are “serious issues” in giving the agency such power because the product is inherently unsafe and thus unable to be properly regulated. The FDA says it has not taken a formal position on the current bill and does not comment on proposed legislation. Nonetheless, the interview prompted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the House version of the bill and chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to fire off a letter to von Eschenbach, stating that the purpose of the measure is to set public-health standards for tobacco use. Big Tobacco isn’t alone in its fight against the bill. The National Association of Convenience Stores has jumped in aggressively. It objects to the bill’s retailing components, which would stipulate a federal standard for retailing cigarettes. Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations for the association, says the retailing components in the bill are 10 years old and better reflect a time when the convenience store industry had a 40.1 percent noncompliance rate when it came to selling cigarettes to minors. Today, that rate is 12 percent, Beckwith says. “There’s no need to create a federal bureaucracy out of Rockville [Md.] to adjudicate 300,000 tobacco retailers,” Beckwith says of the FDA’s home city. “The states are doing a fine job.” Most of the proponents of the measure feel confident that it will pass. They’ve assembled a large coalition, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who is head of Faith United Against Tobacco. Recently, he testified before the Senate Health Committee on the matter. Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says his group does not work with Altria, but adds that he welcomes any support that helps move the legislation. As the bill clips along, Myers, who has worked on the bill for a decade, says he’s continuing to tap his grass-roots apparatus. Myers says, “There will be nothing taken for granted until this bill is passed, signed, and enacted into law.”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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