Tobacco Has Allies, at a Distance

Posted February 26, 2007 at 6:48pm

No industry representatives will take to the microphone this morning at a Senate hearing on a proposed tobacco regulation bill. But if Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, has his way, Senators will be inundated with calls, e-mails and faxes raising objections to the bill by the time the Members return to their offices.

It might seem odd that Gilligan and his members are getting huffy over a bill that addresses how cigarettes are regulated, but his group is just one of several non-tobacco interests that are trying to stub out a bill that has widespread support from Democrats in Congress, cancer groups and a big tobacco conglomerate, Altria.

Gilligan’s 8,000 members own 60,000 convenience stores, and sales of tobacco products make up a huge chunk of the business. So add the Petroleum Marketers, the National Association of Convenience Stores and advertising groups to the list of tobacco companies such as RJ Reynolds and Lorillard Tobacco that are ramping up their lobbying against the bill. Conservative groups such as Freedom Works also are eyeing possible objections to expanding the regulations.

The bill — sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who will chair today’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing — calls for the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products. It also would limit the advertising of tobacco products.

“If the manufacturers of tobacco products want some type of FDA oversight of their business, we’re perfectly fine with that,” Gilligan said. “But anything that brings the federal government into the regulation of retailing, we believe is unjustified and very bad policy.” His goal is to get any provisions related to retail out of the bill, and he has planned to launch a grass-roots effort immediately after the hearing.

Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of government relations with the National Association of Convenience Stores, said he has meetings scheduled in the coming weeks with the bill’s sponsors in the House and Senate. Provisions that would create harsher penalties for stores that sell tobacco products to underage customers are especially troubling to Beckwith’s members. “There’s only so much a retailer can do” to prevent sales to minors, he said.

But Beckwith makes clear that his opposition to the bill is different from that of the tobacco companies, such as RJ Reynolds, and even the advertising groups — a fact that has made it harder for the groups to come together.

Another obstacle for opponents of the bill in its current form is the speed with which it seems to be making its way through the Senate and potentially the House. While they expected the measure to gain momentum under a Democratic-controlled Congress, lobbyists for tobacco companies that oppose the bill as well as the convenience store and advertising interests say that it so far has been speedier than expected.

“We are looking to see how much momentum will come out of the hearing,” said one lobbyist against the bill. This lobbyist said the hearing — which includes officials from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Cancer Society and the Harvard School of Public Health — will make the bill look like “a no-brainer, that there’s no opposition.” However, two of the witnesses, while they don’t represent companies, are against the bill, said a spokeswoman for Kennedy.

Another tobacco lobbyist whose client opposes the bill said there have not been many formal meetings among interests against it, but this lobbyist said the effort is “in its infancy” and various groups quietly are talking about areas of agreement. But the problem is they all have different reasons for opposing it. This lobbyist said groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that have raised objections to the bill when it has come up in the past are keeping their powder dry. A spokesman for the chamber said the group had no comment because it is not working on the matter.

The advertising groups against the bill include the American Association of Advertising Agencies, American Advertising Federation and the Association of National Advertisers.

Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, said that like the convenience stores, he and the other advertisers aren’t taking a position on the FDA regulation of tobacco but oppose advertising restrictions, including one that would ban all outdoor tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. Jaffe said the bill also would limit most magazine advertising to simple black and white text.

“Those restrictions in our view are unconstitutional,” Jaffe said.

The other side, though, is confident.

Melissa Wagoner, a spokeswoman for Kennedy, said the bill’s bipartisan support is impressive and includes faith, medical and health care groups. Alan Roth, a former aide to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and a lobbyist who counts the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids as a client, said on the House side he is meeting with leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

And Wendy Selig, senior vice president for legislative affairs at the American Cancer Society, said her organization is launching a “full-court press. This is one of our highest legislative priorities.”

She added that the measure’s champions such as Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) are in positions of power this Congress. “The legislative picture is good and things are moving,” she said. “We are mobilizing our extensive grass-roots network.”