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Tobacco companies tighten hold on Washington under Trump

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Top White House figures including the vice-president and health secretary have deep ties to an industry whose donations began pouring in on day one

Tobacco companies have moved swiftly to strengthen their grip on Washington politics, ramping up lobbying efforts and securing significant regulatory wins in the first six months of the Trump era.

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Day one of Donald Trumps presidency started with tobacco donations, senior figures have been put in place within the Trump administration who have deep ties to tobacco, and lobbying activity has increased significantly.

As in so many areas, the promise to drain the swamp has been an extraordinary hypocrisy, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, who supported anti-tobacco legislation and was one of the US attorneys general to broker a hundred-billion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s. Many of his appointees have deep commitments to the tobacco industry, he said.

Tobacco industry influence in Washington is pervasive, in many different ways, Blumenthal said. They have an active presence on the Hill, they meet frequently with administrative agencies, on hugely significant issues such as regulation of e-cigarettes, tobacco packaging and warnings.

Americas largest cigarette manufacturers, Reynolds American and Altria Group, donated $1.5m to help the new president celebrate his inauguration. The donations allowed executives to dine and mingle with top administration officials and their families.

Not long after Trump promised to transfer power from Washington to the American people, a wave of spending in pursuit of influence was unleashed. In the first quarter of 2017, tobacco companies and trade associations spent $4.7m lobbying federal officials. Altria, the company behind Marlboro, hired 17 lobbying firms. Reynolds, makers of the Camel brand, hired 13, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.

Since then, tobacco companies have been putting points on the scoreboard. Politicians and officials with deep ties to the tobacco industry now head the US health department, the top attorneys office and the Senate, even as tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death.

Agencies in charge of reviewing large mergers let a window slip by in which they might have requested information about a $49bn merger between Reynolds and British American Tobacco. That merger, expected to be voted through by shareholders next week, will make BAT the biggest listed tobacco company in the world, and puts proceeds from eight out of 10 cigarettes sold in the US into the pockets of two companies: Altria and BAT.

Advocates and opposition politicians fear public health wins in curbing smoking could be vulnerable to a more emboldened industry.

There are also concerns that most at risk are poorer and more vulnerable citizens whose health insurance coverage could be weakened by Republican reforms.

With the new Trump administration and Congress trying to roll back health and safety regulations, generally the tobacco industry is seizing the opportunity to mount its own assault on the programs and policies that have reduced smoking in this country, said Vince Willmore, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The Food and Drug Administration has twice delayed legal briefs to defend regulations of e-cigarettes, products cigarette makers say are the future. Summer deadlines for cigar and e-cigarette makers to file applications with the FDA, which regulates the products, have all been delayed by the Trump administration.

And the high-profile attorney Noel Francisco, who once argued for Reynolds that including a quit-line phone number on cigarette packs amounted to government advocacy against smoking, has been nominated for the post of solicitor general, the governments top attorney.

In the past two decades, the tobacco industry has increasingly steered donations to Republicans. The past two election cycles, 2014 and 2016, were the most partisan ever. Tobacco companies made 84% of their donations each cycle to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Since 1990, $57m has been donated exclusively to Republicans, 74% of the industrys total donations.

Proposals from Republican lawmakers for health reform, which the president has attempted to broker, have threatened to cut $126m that the Centers for Disease Control uses to educate Americans about the harms of tobacco use. Cuts Republicans proposed to Medicaid, a public health program for the poor, could imperil smoking cessation coverage for people already far more likely to smoke than middle- and upper-class Americans.

Trump himself, notoriously secretive about his personal wealth, has revealed that he had investments in tobacco companies, including Philip Morris International, their American spinoff Altria Group, and Reynolds American Inc.

In the last three years, Trumps financial disclosures show he earned up to $2.1m from tobacco holdings in diversified portfolios. Trump said he sold his stocks this spring (although he did not provide proof).

For Trumps inaugural celebration, Reynolds American gave $1m. Altria Group gave $500,000. The US Chamber of Commerce, which has been fiercely pro-tobacco in recent years, gave $25,000.

Vice-President Mike Pence was already well acquainted with the tobacco lobby. In 2001, Pence argued that smoking doesnt kill. Two months later, Pence met with tobacco lobbyists who steered donations his way.

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Tobacco lobbyists discussed donating to Mike Pence in a 2001 email. Photograph: University of California San Francisco Truth Tobacco Industry Documents

Over his career, Pence received $39,000 in donations from RJ Reynolds, a Reynolds American subsidiary, and more than $60,000 from the tobacco-company-aligned National Association of Convenience Stores, both among his top donors. Pence owned up to $250,000 in stock in a family business, a chain of 210 convenience stores doing business as Tobacco Road. The company later went bankrupt.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has had a high-profile role in developing health reform proposals, has long cast votes that favor tobacco interests. McConnell once threatened to derail negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in support of tobacco. McConnell is from Kentucky, one of the top tobacco-growing states in the country. In January, his former chief of staff was hired by Altria.

Trumps health appointments also have deep links to tobacco companies. The health secretary, Tom Price, in 2009 voted against a 62-cent cigarette tax hike that would have helped pay for public health insurance for poor children. He called the law a blow to hard-working Americans meant to feed [Obamas] reckless agenda. Until 2012, Price owned at least $37,000 in shares in Philip Morris International and Altria, Mother Jones reported, and during his career as a state legislator and Georgia congressman, he received more than $37,000 in donations from tobacco companies and related political action committees.In March, Prices former deputy chief of staff was hired as a lobbyist for Reynolds.

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For Trumps inaugural celebration, Reynolds American Incorporated gave $1m. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

In addition to his vote against the cigarette tax, Price also voted against allowing the FDA to regulate tobacco, a vote that would have a large impact on e-cigarettes. Price now leads the department in charge of enforcing those regulations.

Reporting to Price, as the head of the FDA, is Scott Gottlieb. Before he headed the FDA, Gottlieb worked primarily for the investment bank Winston & Company, which helped raise $4.7m for the e-cigarette company Kure in 2016, according to Bloomberg News.

Gottlieb then became a director at Kure the same year. Writing about the FDA, he argued in Forbes that anti-tobacco activists have managed to infiltrate the middle ranks of the agencys center, and suggested e-cigarettes could be an alternative for smokers.

Attorneys appointed to defend the FDAs authority to regulate tobacco products have, in some cases, come directly from the law firm that once fought them Jones Day. The firms attorneys represented Trump during the campaign as well as RJ Reynolds in suits against the US government. Now, 11 lawyers from the firm have been appointed to various government agencies, American Lawyer reported.

Until Franciscos nomination for solicitor general, he represented both RJ Reynolds and their parent company Reynolds American Incorporated. The companies were two of just 16 sources of income, including his law firm Jones Day, from whom Francisco reported earning more than $5,000 per year.

Francisco has had a profoundly important involvement with the tobacco industry, said Blumenthal.

Francisco argued on behalf of Reynolds in a continuing case. In one instance, he successfully argued against a graphic warning design on cigarette packs, which are common in other developed nations, because the warnings included a phone number where people could seek help to quit.

Francisco argued the message veered into advocacy because it told people to live a certain way, according to the Seattle Times.

The government is trying to send a powerful message: Quit smoking now, Francisco reportedly said.

Even the dark American carnage speech Trump gave at his inauguration was written by a one-time tobacco advocate. Trump speechwriter Stephen Miller argued against a cigarette sales ban while he attended Duke University in 2007.

Smoking, while risky and potentially lethal, is not nearly as dangerous as special interest groups and their cohorts in government have made it out to be, Miller wrote. The real risks are the fascistic tendencies that prohibit smoking in even private establishments.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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