Low NY Profile For Tobacco Cos.

Posted August 31, 2004 at 5:28pm

Last year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) dealt a severe financial blow to cigarette makers by banning smoking in restaurants and bars that serve the city’s 7 million residents and countless tourists.

Now the tobacco industry is boycotting Bloomberg.

Altria, R.J. Reynolds and other U.S. tobacco companies have planned few events at this week’s Republican convention in New York and have made just a single contribution to the New York City host committee — the organization run by Bloomberg that funds many convention-related activities.

Officially, tobacco company executives say the decision to spend few dollars in New York had nothing to do with Bloomberg and the smoking ban.

“We are not doing anything,” said Sissy Pressnell, a chief lobbyist for Brown & Williamson, citing the company’s need to focus on its recent merger with R.J. Reynolds. “We just did not get involved.”

“It was a matter of cost — you can’t do everything you want,” added Mark Smith, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds.

But privately, Washington lobbyists for the U.S. tobacco companies said the decision had everything to do with Bloomberg.

“They aren’t real happy with Bloomberg, so they aren’t going to give any money to his party,” said one industry lobbyist.

The biggest change can be seen in Altria, formerly Philip Morris, which moved its headquarters from Park Avenue and 41st Street to Richmond, Va., after the smoking ban went into effect.

In 2000, the company gave $300,000 to help stage the GOP convention in Philadelphia. Philip Morris also was one of the leading players on the party circuit, hosting or sponsoring several glitzy affairs.

This year, the nation’s largest cigarette maker contributed just $100,000 to Bloomberg’s host committee — the same amount that the Republican-friendly firm gave to the Democratic convention and just a fraction of the $5 million that Bloomberg personally contributed to the New York host committee.

The newly combined R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson didn’t contribute a nickel.

“It’s not like Bloomberg is real close with these guys, so he couldn’t pick up the phone and ask for money,” said one tobacco lobbyist.

To be sure, the tobacco companies will have some presence outside of the convention hall this week.

“What they will be doing will not be about helping New York or the convention, but about helping themselves,” said another tobacco lobbyist. “They won’t salute New York, but they will salute the Members who are important to them.”

After all, the tobacco companies need all the help they can get in Washington these days as Congress considers legislation to buy out tobacco-quota farmers.

Meanwhile, the industry is engaged in a bit of a family feud over legislation that would hand the Food and Drug Administration new powers to regulate the sale and marketing of cigarettes.

R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and most of the large tobacco companies opposed the new regulations, but Altria — which controls 50 percent of the market and makes Marlboro, among other brands — supports the legislation.

To schmooze with key lawmakers and Congressional aides outside of the convention hall, the tobacco companies have sponsored several parties this week.

Altria and R.J. Reynolds helped fund a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert on Sunday at the CroBar nightclub that honored Southern Republicans, including Rep. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

On Tuesday afternoon, R.J. Reynolds participated in an event honoring former President George H.W. Bush that was sponsored by the Hispanic Alliance for Progress Institute.

In addition, Altria, which owns Kraft Foods, stashed boxes of elephant-shaped macaroni and cheese in gift bags for thousands of delegates and reporters in New York this week — a longstanding tradition the company has followed at both party conventions. About 6,000 Members of Congress and GOP delegates also received tins of Altoids breath mints, another of the company’s brands.

Dawn Schneider, a spokeswoman for Altria, denied that the company’s smaller contribution to the New York host committee was an act of retribution against Bloomberg.

“Our contributions were appropriate and there was not more attention provided to one convention over the other,” she said.

But tobacco lobbyists said the fact that Altria gave just as much to the New York convention as they did to the Democratic convention in Boston last month should be seen as a rebuke of Bloomberg.

After all, Altria is one of the most reliably Republican companies in the country. From 1990 to 2002, it gave 75 percent of its $19 million in campaign contributions to the GOP, according to a recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics.