The Quiet Victory of the Cigarette Lobby: How It Found the Best Filter Yet—Congress

A Cincinnati-born, Wellesley-educated magazine writer and author of children's plays, Mrs. Drew lives in Washington with her lawyer husband and writes as a freelancer. A former staff member of the Congressional Quarterly, she has had ample opportunity to study that Americanized Byzantine process by which the United States Congress deals with issues before it.

Whatever there was of the other side was simply no match for this array of forces. Within the executive branch, the Public Health Service had to go it alone. The PHS did its best, however, to rally around itself what friends it had. Shortly after the Surgeon General's report came out, the PHS, the Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the National Tuberculosis Association, the American Public Health Association (comprising public health workers across the country), and a number of other private health groups formed an unusual federal private body called the National Interagency Council on Smoking and Health. The AMA was not among the health-oriented groups which joined up. What testimony there was on the side of putting the FTC regulations into effect was better presented because of the council, and, more important, the council informed state health societies and doctors about what Congress was actually doing and stirred up a number of letters and telegrams to congressmen, urging them to hold fast for the advertising rule.

These efforts had some effect on the waverers. But the PHS was hurting from lack of true friends in Congress, an institution that has developed over the years a curious bifocal view of health issues. The lawmakers enthusiastically vote hundreds of millions of dollars--more, usually, than is requested--for health research, for when it is simply a matter of research, what congressman is against health? However, when the health officials go to Capitol Hill with proposals to put research findings into effect--to curb air pollution or discourage smoking--they are the skunks at the lawn party. For on these issues there are large economic interests at stake.

The tobacco strategists correctly deduced that the focal point for the fight to overturn the FTC would be the Senate Commerce Committee. The full Senate and the full House could be expected to follow the lead of the committee reporting out the bill, for both committees preside over legislation which affects a wide range of commercial interests and therefore have considerable leverage in their respective chambers. ("Everybody and his dog has business before those committees at some point," says one Hill aide.) The House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, heavily laced with Southerners and conservatives, would be no problem; it could be expected to report out a bill requiring the label but forbidding, permanently, the FTC to require health warnings in cigarette ads. This would put the industry in the strongest possible position for bargaining with the Senate.

The Senate committee was not such a sure thing. The six Republicans were reliable enough, for this was clearly a crucial issue for Senator Thruston B. Morton of Kentucky, second-ranking GOP member of the committee, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and current chairman of the fund-dispensing Senate Republican campaign committee. On the Democratic side, however, the only member whose political life required defense of the tobacco industry was Ross Bass of Tennessee, a freshman. Early in the hearings, Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, another Democratic committee member, emerged as a tireless cross-examiner of those who opposed the industry's point of view. When questioned about Senator Hartke's seeming devotion to a cause of minimal importance to his own state, his aides took pains to explain that his interest did not stem from his longtime friendship with Clements, as some believed, or from the fact that Clements' campaign committee had given Hartke vitally needed election funds. Hartke himself said that he had come to the hearings thinking that there "must be some connection" between smoking and health, but came away "completely astonished" to find that the connection had not been proved. This gave the industry eight sure votes, and there were others on tap. What it wanted, however, was for the bill that went to the floor to have the support of Chairman Magnuson and of as many committee members as possible.

The industry's task was more difficult than it might have been if Senator Maurine B. Neuberger, Democrat, of Oregon, had not won a seat on the Commerce Committee when Congress opened in 1965. Mrs. Neuberger had long called for closer federal regulation of cigarette merchandising. Now she had an opportunity to challenge the witnesses who appeared before the committee and to proselytize her colleagues. To offset the attempts to undercut the FTC rulings, Mrs. Neuberger introduced legislation giving congressional sanction to what the FTC was trying to do. But in this she stood virtually alone.

The industry's presentation at the Senate hearings was masterful. Bowman Gray, chairman of the board of R. J. Reynolds, appeared for the industry, which carefully did not bombard the committee with too many tiresome witnesses, and the tone of his testimony was more in sorrow than in anger. Mr. Gray pointed out that the tobacco companies were "profoundly conscious" of the health questions and were zealously researching the problem; that "many distinguished scientists...are of the opinion that it has not been established that smoking causes lung cancer or any other disease"; that "millions of persons throughout the world derive pleasure and enjoyment from smoking" (as if someone were proposing to abolish the right to smoke); and that the central purpose of advertising was to compete among products, not to induce people to smoke. Mr. Gray said that the industry was naturally opposed to warnings both on labels and in advertisements, but his testimony was interlarded with the "howevers" and "ifs" that signaled the industry position: If a label is required, have Congress require it, and spell out its terms, rather than leave this to the dangerous FTC or the health-conscious Health, Education, and Welfare Department, parent agency of the PHS. And if Congress requires the warning label, it should not interfere with "the right to advertise--an essential commercial right": "I am confident that the Congress will reject this extreme proposal."

Presented by

Elizabeth Drew

Elizabeth Drew is a writer based in Washington, D.C. The author of 15 books, she is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and a former Washington correspondent for The Atlantic and The New Yorker.

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