Senator's Defense of Big Tobacco Draws Few Allies

Like smoking, defending tobacco just isn't cool anymore.

Just ask GOP Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, home to tobacco giants RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., and thousands of their employees. Last year, North Carolina farmers produced $686 million worth of tobacco, nearly half the value of the entire U.S. output.

Burr, who is running for re-election next year, spent much of the past week arguing in the Senate against a popular bill that would regulate tobacco for the first time.

Most of the time, he was alone.

It wasn't always so lonely.

Just five years ago, Burr was a congressman running for the Senate and had powerful allies such as then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who helped kill similar tobacco legislation.

Congress has a long history of legislative leaders defending the industry. Today, however, friends of Big Tobacco are few and far between.

It's not for lack of trying.

Individuals associated with the industry gave more than twice the amount of money to federal candidates during the 2008 election cycle than they had in 2006.

But that money wields less influence than it once did. Few lawmakers are willing to risk the political clout on defending an industry that many see as a political relic in an age where the public increasingly rejects tobacco products.

That shift has brought a change in strategy for the industry and its allies on Capitol Hill.

"Fifteen years ago, it was, `We don't support any regulation.' Now it's about the form and content of the regulation," says Tommy Payne, a top lobbyist and executive vice president at RJ Reynolds.

The Senate bill would give regulatory authority to the Food and Drug Administration and let the agency control the ingredients in tobacco products.

Instead of simply fighting the proposal, Burr and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., have tried to highlight what they say are flaws in the legislation and have offered an alternative that would have a new agency to regulate tobacco. The senators say the current measure wouldn't do enough to reduce smoking.

Under their plan, the new agency would study the benefits of any reduction in nicotine levels; the competing bill would not require such studies. Their proposal would encourage adult smokers to switch to smokeless tobacco products, which the lawmakers and the companies claim are less risky than cigarettes.

That would help RJ Reynolds and Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris USA, which have bought smokeless tobacco companies in recent years.

Even Burr is distancing himself from the industry. He says he is not defending tobacco companies, but helping to save jobs in the health sector because adding a new mission to the already stretched FDA could have disastrous consequences.

"The media has tried to make this a story about the tobacco companies and in fact it's about the agricultural community, adult choice and its a story about the integrity of the FDA," Burr said. "I am passionate because I think we are getting ready to make a very serious mistake."

Burr attributes the shift in Congress to an environment where regulation is more popular. Gone are the days when DeLay helped kill FDA regulation of tobacco in 2004 after it passed the Senate. He said then he was philosophically opposed to increasing government regulation.

The North Carolinians certainly aren't the only opponents of the legislation. Some conservatives, along with other tobacco-state senators, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Sen. Jim Bunning, both from Kentucky, have come to the Senate to oppose the bill.

But the Democrats are in charge, and the chairmen of the two committees of jurisdiction -- California Rep. Henry Waxman and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy -- are among the original proponents of tobacco regulation. The House easily passed the bill this year and President Barack Obama, once a smoker, has pledged to sign it.

For most of the nation's history, tobacco has held a special place on Capitol Hill. Early lawmakers were farmers and many of them grew the plant. Tobacco leaves are carved into the speaker's rostrum in the House chamber and adorn the capitals of columns inside the building.

"The debate in both the House and Senate reflects a very new day," said Matthew Myers, the president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids who has been fighting for regulation for more than 15 years.

Even Burr's own state has accepted the inevitable. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue signed a bill last month that will ban smoking in the state's restaurants and bars.