Published on Monday, January 15, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Tobacco's New Clout in Washington
by Louis Freedberg
IT'S NOT every governor that goes scuba diving in Australia with
lobbyists for Philip Morris Cos., the tobacco industry giant.
Gov. Tommy Thompson, President-elect George Bush's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, had that pleasure in 1996 when he and Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, along with several Philip Morris employees, took the plunge off Australia's coral reef.
So far, most attention has been focused on Thompson's anti-abortion views, but little has been paid to his close ties to the tobacco industry -- ties which have some tobacco-control advocates deeply worried. "We believe he will be a disaster for public health," said Stanton Glantz, a professor at the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the University of California at San Francisco.
In 1998, Glantz and co-researcher Fred Monardi attempted the near impossible -- finding a scientific way to measure the connection between tobacco contributions and public policy. After conducting a complex statistical analysis, Glantz issued a 33-page study titled "Tobacco Industry Political Activity and Tobacco Control Policy-Making in Wisconsin: 1983-1998."
Their conclusion: "The tobacco industry is a major political and legal force in Wisconsin through campaign contributions, lobbying and litigation." As for Thompson, they found that "compared to governors in other states we have studied -- California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey -- Thompson has a very close relationship with the tobacco industry." Lest anyone think the UCSF researchers had a political motive, the report was published long before Bush was even a candidate for president, let alone thinking about putting Thompson in his Cabinet.
Between 1993 and 2000, Thompson received $72,000 in campaign contributions either directly from Philip Morris, or from its subsidiaries and their employees. In the 1990s, Thompson also went on three trips, valued at $16,000, sponsored by the National Governor's Association and organized by nonprofit organizations substantially funded by Philip Morris, including the one to Australia.
Thompson said he did not know about Philip Morris' involvement until after the trip. Yet within weeks of returning he sent a letter to Philip Morris lobbyist John Lenzi, telling him he was "especially grateful that you agreed to take the scuba diving plunge with me" and encouraging him to stop by his office the next time he came to Madison.
Glantz said the tobacco-sponsored junkets are not as innocuous as they might seem. "We know from reading industry documents that they don't fly these people around the world because they want to get them frequent-flier miles," he said.
He and others contend that the record clearly shows that Thompson has been a less than enthusiastic supporter of tobacco-control efforts."Wisconsin has not been as aggressive as it could or should have been in initiating or supporting tobacco-control programs throughout his tenure as governor," said Paul Billings of the American Lung Association.
When Thompson goes to Capitol Hill this week for his confirmation hearings, he must be pressed on several critical issues. Will he curtail the Food and Drug Administration's aggressive attempts to regulate tobacco products? What programs will he support at the Centers for Disease Control to prevent tobacco- related disease? What relevant research will he encourage at the National Institutes of Health? Each of these agencies will come under his aegis as HHS secretary.
Above all, Thompson must be asked about his plans to help prevent the deaths of an estimated 400,000 Americans from tobacco products each year.
As the nation's chief health official, there can be fewer higher responsibilities.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle