Industry painted tobacco bill as tax, power grab Conservatives, ads slowed and finally stopped legislation

June 19, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Last month, in a wholesome tableau in front of the Capitol, Sen. John McCain, Olympian Tara Lipinski and a sea of boisterous children rallied for passage of tobacco legislation, saying it was desperately needed to reduce teen-age smoking.

Nearby, a young man handed out leaflets condemning the bill as a greedy tax grab designed to expand government and enrich lawyers.

"If we could just slow this thing down, we could win," the Americans for Tax Reform volunteer sighed, gazing glumly at the scene before him.

The comment proved prescient. Conservative senators began that day to slow the tobacco juggernaut to a crawl. A torrent of tobacco industry advertising then softened public opinion enough to give Republicans the political cover to kill it.

Once the polling numbers began to turn, it was a matter of time before McCain's $516 billion bill went down for the count.

"My only conclusion can be that the tobacco company ad campaigns had a significant effect," said McCain, an Arizona Republican. "On the talk shows, people were calling in and actually parroting the ads. They didn't mean to. It was like it was seeping in by osmosis."

The mammoth tobacco bill vanished from the Senate floor yesterday after four weeks of acrimonious debate, leaving behind an eerie void, like a noisy house guest who had unexpectedly left town. All that remained was the finger-pointing, the Monday-morning quarterbacking and some quiet talk of trying once again to find a consensus on tobacco control.

"Nothing like the McCain bill is going to pass," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, adding that Congress can combat youth smoking without raising tobacco taxes.

But President Clinton declared yesterday: "It's dead today; it may not be dead tomorrow. I've never quit on anything this important in my life, and I don't intend to stop now. There are too many futures riding on it, and I think, in the end, we will prevail."

That may be wishful thinking, considering the lingering rancor on Capitol Hill and the power wielded by the bill's Republican opponents. Democrats continued to lash out at Republicans, charging in the harshest terms that they had done the bidding of the tobacco industry in exchange for nearly $12 million in campaign donations over the past four years.

"Yesterday, it became entirely clear that, in this merger era that we're in, RJR merged with the GOP," declared Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, referring to R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second-largest tobacco company. "We now have GOP, a full-fledged subsidiary of RJR."

Republicans insisted that they were more in step with public sentiment.

"Americans soured on the legislation when they realized that this was a bill that awarded lawyers fees of $400,000 an hour," said Andrea Andrews, a spokeswoman with the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. "This was not a bill which addressed teen smoking. It was a bill that made lawyers wealthy, and it deserved to die."

The tobacco bill's demise may someday be seen as a textbook case of how to kill a bill that enjoys popular support but no corporate muscle to finance its passage. Three months ago, when Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster, began testing the support of tobacco-control legislation, polls came back 2-to-1 in favor.

But in April, when the industry bolted from the negotiating table, the terrain shifted tectonically. The revenue produced by McCain's tobacco bill originally was to have come from a voluntary industry payment. Without the industry on board, it became a $1.10-per-pack tax.

Declaring war on the bill, the industry took the offensive with a six-week advertising blitz estimated to cost between $40 million and $50 million.

A coalition of tobacco companies produced 10 ads depicting the bill as a tax increase fueled more by Washington's desire to create government programs than by an interest in reducing teen smoking. Those ads, running in up to 50 media markets nationwide, were bolstered by separate campaigns by R.J. Reynolds, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the industry-backed National Smokers Alliance.

The industry ads posted a toll-free number that allowed callers to be patched through immediately to their senators, to send their senators a telegram, or to receive more industry information. More than 270,000 calls came in, and more than half took the tobacco industry up on one of those offers, said Scott Williams, am industry spokesman. Senators were besieged.

"The industry had the advantage because our message was true," Williams insisted, though Clinton called the ads "hooey."

"An ad campaign that's not true won't work," Williams said.

The barrage, costing more than $40 million, was unprecedented. The storied "Harry and Louise" ads run by the insurance industry against Clinton's national health plan cost just $10 million.

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