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Bush Administration Tobacco Industry Ties

by Robert WeissmanSpecial to CorpWatch
April 1st, 2001

Policy making authority in the Bush administration on tobacco issues will rest largely with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Justice Department, the U.S. Trade Representative and, above all, the White House. Many key officials in these agencies have ties to the tobacco industry or have suggested sympathy for positions favored by the industry.

The Players


Karl Rove

Karl RovePerhaps the most important figure in Bush's campaign, Rove landed a role as senior advisor to the president. Rove is one of the power centers in the White House, (along with senior White House counselor Karen Hughes, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Vice President Dick Cheney.)

Rove goes way back with George W. Bush. He helped engineer Bush's 1994 victory giving W. the Texas governorship. After Bush was elected, Rove wore multiple hats. He advised the governor, continued his work as a political operative, and worked as a lobbyist/consultant -- for Philip Morris.

In a 1997 deposition, Rove testified that he worked as a Philip Morris consultant from 1991 to 1996, taking about $175,000 in fees. He said that Bush was aware of his Philip Morris ties beginning in 1993.

The Bush governorship was very, very good to Philip Morris. Atop Big Tobacco's wish list are restrictions on citizens' rights to sue the makers of harmful products -- often known by the misleading moniker "tort reform." Tort reform involves limits on victims' ability to combine claims in class actions, seek punitive damages, receive compensation pain and suffering and enter into contingency-fee arrangements with lawyers, among other proposals.

Rove admitted in his 1997 deposition that he steered Bush toward pushing the tort reform issue as a central prong in his campaigns, though Rove denied ever misusing his ties to the governor to advance the interests of Philip Morris. Bush did deliver a major rollback in victims' legal rights -- highlighted in his presidential campaign -- to the benefit of Philip Morris.

In his current post, Rove is among the most powerful and influential White House officials, with broad authority to help shape or influence almost all domestic policy.


Tommy Thompson

Tommy ThompsonHealth and Human Services Secretary Thompson maintained warm relations with Philip Morris during his tenure as Wisconsin governor.

He went to three continents on three trips arranged by the National Governors Association and substantially funded by Philip Morris. "I value your loyalty and friendship," Thompson wrote Andrew Whist, a Philip Morris senior vice president after an Africa trip in 1995, according to the Associated Press. Following a 1996 visit to Australia, Thompson wrote Philip Morris lobbyist Jack Lenzi that he was "especially grateful you agreed to take the scuba diving plunge with me." During his time in politics, Thompson has collected more than $100,000 in contributions from the tobacco industry, affiliated firms and their executives.

As governor, Thompson's record on tobacco was mostly poor, although not totally dismal. He signed four tobacco tax increases and was supportive of the state's suit against the tobacco industry. (By contrast to Bush as governor worked, largely unsuccessfully, to undermine the Texas suit against the industry.) But Thompson signed a smokers' rights bill -- which gives smokers in Wisconsin similar protected status as minorities, women, the elderly and the disabled, vetoed a smoking ban in general seating for the Milwaukee Brewers' new baseball stadium, and vetoed a bill that would have permitted cities to adopt stronger anti-smoking rules than those maintained by the state.

As Secretary of Health and Human Services, Thompson is the foremost health policy official in the United States. He will have a crucial role in determining whether the Food and Drug Administration seeks authority to regulate tobacco, and in overseeing most of the health-related tobacco programs carried out by the federal government, including those run by the Centers for Disease Control. In his confirmation hearings, Thompson told Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, "we need you to get your legislation passed," referring to a bill proposed by Harkin that would give the FDA jurisdiction over tobacco advertising.

In March, Thompson spoke out forcefully against tobacco, during the release of the surgeon general's report on smoking. "I promised Surgeon General Satcher that I would use the bully pulpit of the Office of Secretary to decry the harmful affects of smoking as much as I possibly could," Thompson pledged.

Before supporting strong controls on the tobacco industry, Thompson noted that he was speaking for himself, not necessarily the administration.


John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft"I am no friend of the tobacco industry," Attorney General John Ashcroft said during his confirmation hearings. In a way, this might be true. Ashcroft's religious views militate against the use of tobacco.

But his ideological views are compatible with those of the tobacco industry, especially in his opposition to victims' rights to seek redress through the civil justice system. Ashcroft served on the advisory board of the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF), a right-wing foundation with strong corporate backing. Tommy Thompson served on the foundation's legal policy advisory. (Other WLF alumni cabinet members include Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham.)

"WLF has served as a mouthpiece for tobacco companies in many battles against regulation of tobacco products," explained the Berkeley-based Americans for Nonsmokers Rights in a letter opposing Thompson's nomination. An internal Philip Morris memo described Washington Legal Foundation as follows: "A close ally of PM for many years, WLF has been involved in numerous aspects of the tobacco industry debate. They have filed amicus briefs against the EPA; they have written and promoted policy papers supporting our position on the advertising/First Amendment issue; and, most recently, they authored a major paper detailing why the tobacco industry is already one of the most highly regulated industries in America and does not need further regulatory control."

As Attorney General, Ashcroft will have primary decision-making authority as to whether the United States continues its lawsuit against the tobacco industry, and how vigorously it wages the suit if it maintains it. Ashcroft testified in his confirmation hearings that he had "no predisposition" to dismiss the lawsuit. However, in an August 24, 2000 letter to a constituent (when Ashcroft was still a senator), he wrote, "While I am deeply troubled by the increase in tobacco use by teenagers today, I do not believe that this lawsuit will help in the fight to curb teen smoking." He added, "I am concerned that the DOJ lawsuit could set an unwise precedent leading to the federal government filing lawsuits against countless other legal industries."

In a move that surprised many observers, the Ashcroft Justice Department petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene on behalf of the state of Massachusetts in a case coming before the court at the end of April. The case involves an industry challenge, on free-speech grounds, to a Massachusetts advertising regulation.


John Graham

Graham is the Bush nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) within the White House's Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Graham's post would give him a "gatekeeper" role in reviewing all health, safety and environmental regulations issued by the Bush administration.

It is hard to imagine anyone more hostile to health and safety regulation being appointed to the post.

Graham comes from a long tenure as head of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, an corporate-backed center that has pushed the idea that citizens are overly fearful of industrial risks and urging that regulations be based on "sound science" -- a code term that effectively means corporate-backed science.

The tobacco industry documents now available on the internet feature Graham in a small but amusing role as a money-grubbing academic who delivers the right message for the tobacco industry.

A memo from a Philip Morris executive on Graham says, "Sure, he's after $ to help support his Center, but whether or not PM decides to contribute it's more important to meet him and perhaps get 'looped in' better with his activities. ...he is a key player in all this risk analysis stuff that's currently going on in the government."

Philip Morris eventually did become a contributor to Graham's Center, though it is unclear if payment ever came directly from the tobacco company (a Philip Morris check was returned, for unclear reasons). Philip Morris' subsidiary Kraft definitely did contribute to the Center, though the company was a bit taken aback by Graham's fundraising brazenness.

The Philip Morris files show Graham sending letters to the government on secondhand smoke, arguing that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reviews of the issue should have been subjected to greater White House control.

"The president has nominated someone intent on eradicating basic government safeguards to head the very office charged with overseeing them," says Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "The public may never have heard of John Graham, but he could dramatically affect the quality of the air they breathe, the wholesomeness of the food they eat and the safety of the cars they drive."

"Rather than being a fair-minded assessor, Graham would continue to conspire with the chemical polluters, the tobacco industry, automakers, the oil and gas industries and others to stop the issuance of safety protections," Claybrook added.

Robert Weissman is editor of Multinational Monitor magazine and co-director of Essential Action, a corporate accountability group.1310Special to CorpWatch