WASHINGTON – Congress is taking new whacks at the cigarette industry, banning tobacco sales in Senate buildings and — more importantly — seeking a significant federal tax increase on cigarettes.
The industry, once a lobbying behemoth, is quietly working against the tax bill. But it lacks the clout it once wielded.
Several key lawmakers said they have had no recent contacts with tobacco lobbyists. And both houses have signaled a willingness to raise the cigarette tax if other provisions of a children's health bill can be resolved.
"I think the industry has tried to do things more quietly, largely because they obviously know how popular a tobacco tax is," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. The health advocacy group supports a proposed $35 billion increase in the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which a higher cigarette tax would finance.
House and Senate negotiators are trying to craft a veto-proof version of the bill. President Bush says he would veto it because it calls for a 61 cents-per-pack increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes, taking it to $1.
The House came within about a dozen votes of overriding Bush's veto of a similar bill last month. The bill's supporters are offering to change program eligibility rules in hopes of picking up enough Republicans to make the revised bill veto-proof. The proposed cigarette tax increase is not at issue, leaders of both parties said.
Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest cigarette maker, sponsors a Web site, mailings and a toll-free number urging people to ask Congress to sustain Bush's veto. "Taxing smokers is unfair," the materials say, adding that states have increased sales taxes on cigarettes 73 times since 2000.
"We are sharing our position with legislators," Philip Morris spokesman Bill Phelps said in an interview. The company also has encouraged tobacco growers, retailers and wholesalers to get involved, he said.
But tobacco's critics say health concerns have deeply eroded the industry's influence in Congress.
"The country and elected officials have really made a turn," said Bill Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Cigarette companies, he said, "don't have the opportunity to go in and push members as much."
The tobacco industry gave $3.5 million to federal campaigns and candidates in the 2006 election cycle, ranking 64th among major industry groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ten years earlier, it gave $10.5 million, ranking 26th.
Some Democratic lawmakers have groused that House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is married to a lobbyist who has worked for Philip Morris' parent company. Blunt, who is monitoring the children's health negotiations, says his wife no longer lobbies on tobacco issues.
In a landmark 1998 settlement of many lawsuits, four major tobacco companies agreed to help states pay for smoking-related health care costs. They paid $52.6 billion from 2000 to 2005, the government reported.
In some ways, tobacco's presence on Capitol Hill is literally waning. The Senate Rules Committee recently ordered shops in the Capitol and all Senate office buildings to end cigarette sales by Jan. 1.
Cigarettes are still sold in the Longworth House Office Building. But last January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., banned smoking in the ornate Speaker's Lobby, just off the House floor.
"The days of smoke-filled rooms in the United States Capitol are over," she said, citing the risks of cancer and respiratory diseases.
Other congressional actions could have a far greater impact on the industry. A Senate committee recently approved legislation that would, for the first time, allow federal regulation of cigarettes. The bill, also pending in the House, would require the Food and Drug Administration to restrict tobacco advertising, regulate warning labels and remove hazardous ingredients.