Buying Votes, Buying Friends: Tobacco Industry Political Influence

By Tannenbaum, David | Multinational Monitor, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview
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Buying Votes, Buying Friends: Tobacco Industry Political Influence

Tannenbaum, David, Multinational Monitor

A. From Head to Toe: Big Tobacco's Political Stratagems

"Mr. Kornegay, [chair of the Tobacco Institute], stated that he had been privileged to attend the ceremonies at the opening of the new Brown & Williamson plant in Macon, Georgia. He reported that the ceremonies were most impressive, with the Governor, the Mayor of Macon, and several members of Congress in attendance" .

So read the minutes of the sixty-fourth meeting of the Tobacco Institute's Executive Committee. This and other recently released internal tobacco industry documents record for the annals of an ignominious history the influence of the tobacco industry on government decision-makers. The documents show that the impressive representation of local, state and federal officials at the Brown & Williamson plant opening reflect Big Tobacco's pervasive influence at all levels of government.

Big Tobacco has long trembled at the possibility of meaningful government action to combat the companies' efforts to addict generation after generation to the smoking habit. When the occasional high-level government official has turned against the industry, the tobacco companies have marshalled their troops and declared "war."

In response to a modest proposal by Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano to withdraw government research and other support for the industry, a Brown & Williamson executive wrote in an internal note, "This is an all-out effort by [Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph] Califano, and we should consider trying to fight this stance through contacts with top government officials. ... This is an all-out war between Califano and industry and will be determined by whether Califano is more powerful than industry and Congress or if industry and Congress are more powerful than Califano" .

This tenor is maintained in other documents, as in one written by an attorney from Brown & Williamson which declares, "The Institute must continue to wage war against all legislation which would adversely affect the industry in any way" .


The documents show that the tobacco companies were more than able to fund the "war." Since the law requires that most political donations be made public, it has long been known that tobacco companies are one of the biggest donor groups in the country. For example, according to government watchdog group Common Cause, since 1987 the industry has given $11.9 million in direct contributions to candidates and $16.7 million more in "soft money" contributions to national parties. In the 1995-1996 elections, Philip Morris was the number one donor in the country, with more than $4 million in hard and soft money contributions. Industry lobbyists have poured millions more into congressional coffers.

But despite the fact that senators voting against the most recent tobacco bill received an average of more than four times as much tobacco money as those voting for it, donors and recipients alike continue to deny the influence of contributions. For example, in a Philip Morris document of anticipated questions and prepared answers, the company's response to the question "What does the company hope to gain from [soft money donations]," is "PM participates in the political process of this country as all Americans are constitutionally permitted to do. ... PM does so to make known to public policy officials the views of the company, its employees and shareholders" . The industry documents show the companies intended much more than merely to communicate views with their massive contributions - they expected to gain the ability, to influence lawmakers' votes and actions.

For example, a collection of Tobacco Institute documents entitled "Comments Made at the Annual Meeting, December 13, 1984" describe the scope and intent of Tobacco Institute donations targeted at members of tax-writing committees and members of the Ways and Means, and Finance committees.

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Buying Votes, Buying Friends: Tobacco Industry Political Influence


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