The Tobacco Election

Tobacco's number one target is Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler. A pediatrician appointed by President Bush, Dr. Kessler has crossed over the most dangerous line in Washington: He's committed a truth--and an obvious one at that. He's claimed that the masters of nicotine pharmacology need to be regulated because they prey upon our public health. For his crime, the tobacco industry has placed a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head. Bob Dole is the designated bounty hunter.

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The media has not only missed Dole's assignment, it has bought into the hype of the phony anti-government revolution. The press is portraying Dole as a freedom-loving, honest loner who sometimes comes across poorly because he's a man of action, not words. In other words, the Marlboro Man. Newsweek's Joe Klein expertly propagated the party line in a rundown of Clinton vs. Dole titled "Saxophone vs. Sacrifice." He writes, "Bob Dole represents qualities that seem to have vanished in the cross-fire of modern American dirtball politics: moderation, patience, a respect for tradition."

In fact, Dole is a leading agent of the most dirtball political agenda today. To the proper audiences, Dole has promised that, if elected, he will fire Dr. Kessler. He will likely place a moratorium on federal smoking regulations and defund scientists who are studying smoking or the carcinogenic effects of secondhand smoke. Dole will duplicitously claim that cigarette taxes, health issues, and public space concerns are best handled by the states.

What would be the consequences of this "moderate" agenda? Consider what happened when Senate Majority Leader Dole took a similar position on smokeless tobacco 10 years ago.

Smokeless tobacco is a healthy sounding euphemism for tobacco products like moist snuff that you chew or put between cheek and gums. Before the top smokeless tobacco company, U.S. Tobacco (now called UST), launched a deliberate campaign to hook kids, the habit was confined to older men and was fast disappearing; fewer than 2 percent of young men ages 17 and 18 chewed or "dipped" tobacco. But then U.S. Tobacco added sweet flavorings like cherry; created product lines with graduated nicotine strength; hired baseball players to flack that chewing tobacco was cool; sponsored rock concerts and rodeos; and through promotions for its starter product, "Skoal Bandits," slyly implied that chew was a cool way for teens to rebel--and one easily concealed from parents and teachers.

During the 1985 federal budget negotiations, a bipartisan bill was introduced in Congress to raise excise taxes on chewing tobacco and make it less affordable to adolescents. Dole defeated the measure (simultaneously slipping in a tobacco growers' subsidy crafted by Sen. Jesse Helms). As Common Cause magazine reported, Dole promised he would reconsider the excise tax hike if the pending surgeon general's report linked smokeless tobacco to oral cancer. The 1986 surgeon general's report did; the Kansas senator didn't. "Dole was very loyal to the smokeless tobacco industry," a former industry representative told Common Cause. "He was someone that they could rely on in Congress to derail legislation."

UST repaid Dole's loyalty with hard and soft money contributions to his subsequent campaigns; "pacesetter" donations to his charity to help the disabled; stealthy contributions to his short-lived Better America Foundation; and at least 26 subsidized rides (billed at about 5 percent of their actual cost) on UST's corporate jet. These were sound investments. The tax breaks Dole gave UST cumulatively amounted to at least $250 million.

In the decade since Dole intervened for UST, the smokeless epidemic among kids hasn't abated. Almost as many teenage boys now use chewing tobacco as cigarettes. More than half start by eighth grade. A 1992 report by then-Surgeon General Antonia Novello concluded that smokeless tobacco is more addictive than cigarettes because users start earlier and absorb twice as much nicotine. Half of all young users grow precancerous lesions in their mouths while they're still teenagers; about 5 percent of these lesions will develop into oral cancer.

Today Dr. Novello believes the favorable tax treatment given smokeless tobacco is the main reason the epidemic is spreading. "Spit tobacco is cheap, and teens are sensitive to price."

Dole's hidden work on behalf of tobacco has had an even more deleterious effect on foreign youth. Dole directly helped the tobacco industry penetrate overseas markets, particularly in Asia. Again in partnership with Jesse Helms, he quietly muscled foreign governments to allow the seductive tobacco advertising they'd previously banned. For example, Dole personally lobbied the Korean ambassador on this issue and was thanked for his help in killing a bill that would have imposed a tariff on Korean textiles. A year after American cigarettes burst into the Korean market, smoking rates among Korean teenage boys rose from 18 to 30 percent and among teenage girls from 2 to 9 percent.

The tobacco industry has created a political influence network almost Bolshevik in its secrecy. By contrast, I want to be completely open about the reform agenda we're advocating: First, any politician who takes tobacco money should be ousted. All seekers of public office should be asked to sign the bipartisan Tobacco Cash Pledge (now being circulated in Congress by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids), promising they won't ever take tobacco contributions, direct or indirect.

Our politicians don't have to punish tobacco; it would be enough if they merely kept their hands off the pending FDA and court cases. If justice prevails in these arenas, the tobacco industry will be forced to finance independent anti-smoking campaigns and pay massive reparations to cover its share of our national health bill--about $50 billion a year caused by tobacco-related illnesses.

The tobacco companies may seriously consider such a deal once their former chief executives find themselves facing jail time for the perjury they committed in 1994, when they told Rep. Henry Waxman's congressional subcommittee that they did not believe nicotine to be addictive. These executives thought they could get away with what seems like a conspiracy to defraud because they'd bought off 70 percent of the subcommittee members below Waxman and all the leadership above him.

Although the industry has dramatically shifted its financial support to the GOP Congress, many key Democrats are still in tobacco's pouch. For example, a leading Democratic recipient, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, has secretly lobbied the White House to rein in Dr. Kessler. As of this writing, despite almost daily exposZs of the industry's malfeasance, this Congress has not held a single hearing concerning tobacco.

Dr. Kessler's imminent ruling that nicotine is a drug will up the ante for tobacco. The industry is already gearing up its disinformation campaign to label opponents un-American health nazis who want "big government" to curtail natural freedoms. But we're not calling for prohibition. Adults have a choice whether to smoke. Yet even most adult smokers want curbs on tobacco marketing so that it won't hook a new generation.

The tobacco industry knows which curbs work and which don't. The most effective anti-smoking campaigns expose Big Tobacco's cynical manipulation of a public it deems gullible. Such ads had a considerable effect in California until they were yanked from the airwaves by one of tobacco's stealth allies, Gov. Pete Wilson. He and the industry prefer finger-wagging ads that encourage adults to call an 800 number if they see youngsters buying cigarettes. The first type of campaign tells kids they're suckers if they light up; the second subtly encourages them to rebel.

The public should know if a newly contrite tobacco industry is merely suckering us again. Here's a litmus test: Any "moderate" solution that lets the tobacco industry retain political influence is unacceptable. One hundred strikes and you're out.

Should the nation's politicians prove less committed to the public health than to tobacco's dirty money, a serious reform movement should be formed drawing from both progressive and conservative ranks. Here's one idea for how it might proceed, taken from a speech titled "The New Nationalism": "It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes: It is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced."

The author of this speech was neither Jerry Brown nor Pat Buchanan; it was Teddy Roosevelt. His cousin, FDR, tempered Teddy's prosecutorial stance when he cut his New Deal with the business community. Business and government agreed to cooperate on a strategy of growth based upon a foundation of consumer protection.

If the business community wants to revoke this deal, then all original terms must be reconsidered. For example, if the National Federation of Independent Business continues to co-conspire against an FDA commissioner who is simply trying to curb the nation's number one cause of preventable disease, then the business community should be kept away from electoral politics altogether.

A campaign finance reform this sober will require leading politicians to take brave steps. In the meantime, if Bob Dole wants to campaign as a heroic Republican calling on individuals to take more personal responsibility for their actions, he should say to the country: "I now realize my mistake in aiding the tobacco industry. From this day on, I'll take no more of their money. If elected, I vow to support Dr. Kessler in his quest to keep addictive nicotine away from our youth."

Only when Bob Dole accepts so elementary a responsibility will he have the moral right to seek the bully pulpit.