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Tobacco Use: You've Come a Long Way, Congress

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
These days, smokers are largely forced outside, even on the Capitol campus. But Congress’ long history is entwined with tobacco.

But not all members of Congress are so accepting. Upon hearing of Hudson’s markup indulgence, anti-tobacco crusader Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said members “should not be chewing tobacco during committee hearings and markups.

“These are televised proceedings and, believe it or not, public figures can be role models,” Waxman said in a statement in response to Hudson’s spitter episode. “Members flaunting tobacco use sends the wrong message to kids.”

Hudson, for his part, said he wished Waxman and other members would “save their outrage” for the debt crisis and lower standards of living for future generations caused by “liberal tax-and-spend policies.”

It’s not the first time Waxman has taken on tobacco inside Congress.

In conjunction with the American Lung Association, Waxman once conducted an undercover tobacco sting in the Capitol complex. In 1998, two 15-year-old girls went around to various congressional vending machines and snack shops trying to buy cigarettes.

A report on the sting, “Capitol Offense: Kids Buy Cigarettes From Congress,” detailed how the minors were able to purchase Camel Lights and Marlboro Lights from the Senate, and packs of Newports, Virginia Slims and Kools at three different locations on the House side, raising questions about youth access to tobacco and whether, perhaps, the House had a thing for menthols.

Congress has long had a love affair with tobacco. Any intern worth his or her congressional badge can tell Capitol visitors of the Corinthian columns adorned in tobacco leaves. But today, Congress and tobacco’s relationship would probably be best described as, “It’s complicated.”

When Democrats seized control of the House in 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., banned smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby, the ornate foyer just off the House floor that is exactly the type of place one would imagine members of Congress sitting in leather chairs, admiring fireplaces and puffing on cigars.

When Republicans took the House back in 2011, not even Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a dedicated smoker, dared reverse the order.

It used to be different.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., once told Elizabeth A. Palmer for a CQ Weekly story that when he first came to Congress in 1980, he smoked a pipe everywhere. “I smoked at every Energy and Commerce subcommittee and full committee meeting I was in,” Rogers said, “and no one paid any attention.”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, once noted that when he chaired the Labor and Human Resources Committee in the early 1980s, ranking Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., “used to smoke cigars and blow smoke in my direction,” trying to provoke the strict, non-tobacco-using Mormon. The strategy, according to Hatch, didn’t work, Palmer related.

There was also a time when the Senate actually supplied tobacco.

Senators were once able to take advantage of a replenishing supply of snuff, a tobacco product that is inhaled through the nose. To this day, the Senate keeps two snuffboxes, one for Republicans and one for Democrats.

Snuffboxes are ancient even by the Senate’s old-fashioned standards. In 1910, John Corrigan Jr. wrote in The Atlanta Constitution that the Senate snuffboxes were “reminders of those days when dandies wore knee breeches and shoes with silver buckles.”

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