Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for NPR
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Stated that one of his "top priorities" was to tackle the leading cause of avoidable death in the United States: the smoking.
McConnell sponsored a bill, along with Virginia Democrat Senator Tim Kaine, who would raise the age of tobacco to 18 to 21 year olds.
In a speech to the Senate last month, McConnell said, "The sad reality is that Kentucky has the highest cancer rates in the country, and we are leading the percentage of cancer cases in the country. directly related to smoking. "
In fact, nearly 9,000 Kentuckians die each year as a result of smoking, or about 24 people a day. Kentucky also spends $ 1.9 billion on smoking-related health problems such as lung cancer, stroke and premature births.
"Our state has already grown tobacco like no other," said McConnell. "And now, the health consequences of smoking are unprecedented."
McConnell nonetheless noted: "I could seem to be an unusual candidate for this charge."
For many advocates of public health, this was a huge understatement.
Follow the footsteps of the industry
A NPR study of McConnell's relationship with the tobacco industry over the decades has revealed that he has repeatedly questioned the health consequences of smoking, blaming the industry for the word. , attacking federal regulators at the request of the latter and opposing bipartite regulations on tobacco. decades back.
In turn, the industry has provided McConnell with millions of dollars in speech fees, personal donations, campaign contributions and charitable donations to the McConnell Center, which houses his personal and professional archives.
A lobbyist for R.J. Reynolds called McConnell a "special friend" of the company.
Most of McConnell's relationship with the tobacco industry took place behind the scenes. But the disclosure of millions of documents from the formerly secretive tobacco industry – which are now easily searchable online – has opened a window to McConnell's interactions with tobacco leaders and lobbyists.
Many of the recordings were first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, as part of a one year survey on McConnell. NPR is presenting for the first time other papers on McConnell's relationships with the industry as part of a series produced by the Embedded podcast.
On the whole, ethics observers say the papers raise questions about how McConnell is drafting legislation for wealthy and powerful industries, even with millions of lives at stake. Cigarettes kill around 480,000 people in Canada. United States every year.
And, to take a closer look, it seems that McConnell's legislation aimed at increasing the age of tobacco purchase has actually followed the example of the industry.
Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA and a major player in electronic cigarette maker Juul, announced its support for the measure in 2018. Several states and localities have already raised their age of buying tobacco.
NPR also found that the vaping and tobacco companies currently employ McConnell's former policy advisor, former policy director and former chief of staff to lobby on their behalf. Lobby groups frequently hire former members of the staff of the highest senators of both parties, even though former senators are prohibited from lobbying their former bosses less than a year. after leaving the government.
In the month leading up to McConnell's announcement of support for this measure, two Altria government affairs officials donated to Senator McConnell's campaign.
An Altria spokesperson did not answer NPR's questions.
Matt Cardy / Getty Images
Some public health groups, such as the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society Action Network, have praised the bill.
But several anti-smoking groups have expressed concerns about Bill McConnell and the industry's support for the legislation. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Children called for major changes to the bill. And the Foundation for the Prevention of Tobacco Addiction has announced its "fierce opposition".
One of the concerns of these groups is that the legislation will avoid more stringent regulation of vaping, particularly regulations on flavored electronic cigarettes.
"It's a sleight of hand for the Jedi," said Sharon Eubanks, who led the Justice Department's history of racketeering against the racketeering sector.
The e-cigarette manufacturers want to avoid any liability for the ebb vape epidemic, said Eubanks, and "industry support for such measures takes them away from responsibility."
McConnell "protects them," says Dr. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Whatever it is, whatever the motivation, Kessler says he is supportive of increasing the age of tobacco at age 21.
"I'm going to take it," he says. "But this happens because the industry is in trouble."
In fact, the day of McConnell's announcement, a board member of the Vapor Technology Association, a professional industry association, tweeted, "Hopefully this will lead the #FDA to reevaluate" the more stringent regulation on flavored electronic cigarettes.
Later this month, members of the vaping industry occupational group met with McConnell's staff.
A representative of the Vapor Technology Association did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
In an email, Georgeanna Sullivan, McConnell's Deputy Press Secretary, wrote: "Senator McConnell's bipartisan law on tobacco-free youth has been endorsed so far by nearly 50 public health groups sharing the goals. from Chief McConnell and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, who is reducing tobacco products in the hands of youth. "
Kaine, like McConnell, represents a large tobacco producing state, Virginia. But, he said, "what is more important than tobacco is by far the health of our young people, so it's the surge of smoking among young people who, in my opinion , made this matter urgent ".
McConnell's deputy press officer also pointed out that McConnell contributed to the $ 10 billion buyout of tobacco in the mid-2000s, ending federal tobacco price support and pushing many tobacco producers to opt for other crops.
"No one has done more to help Kentucky's transition and our country's tobacco culture than Senator McConnell," Sullivan wrote.
McConnell himself told the NPR that Republicans and Kentucky Democrats have fought for the tobacco industry.
"There was no one who was not fighting for tobacco in Kentucky at that time," McConnell said. "Nobody."
A window on McConnell's contacts with tobacco lobbyists
Since his first election to the Senate in 1984, Mitch McConnell has vigorously opposed tobacco industry regulations, ranging from the ban on smoking in the air to the FDA's authorization to regulate by the FDA and to include smoking in the curricula of drug schools.
Certainly, Kentucky's culture and economy have been closely tied to tobacco growing for decades. McConnell argued that her support for the industry is explained by the fact that she employs tens of thousands of farmers in the state. "Tobacco growing has put shoes on children's feet," McConnell said in May. "He put dinner on the table." In the 1990s, tobacco contributed more than $ 2 billion annually to the Kentucky economy, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time.
But the importance of tobacco for Kentucky can sometimes be overestimated. the Courier-Journal said in 1998 "Despite the legend of Kentucky, tobacco is not a king", pointing out that tobacco accounted for only 3% of the overall state's economy .
Whatever the case may be, industry documents reveal the methods used by tobacco lobbyists to gain favor with tobacco-producing state politicians.
Shortly after McConnell won a seat in the US Senate, he was invited to the boardroom of the Tobacco Institute to deliver a speech in January 1985.
At the time, the main lobbying agency of the tobacco industry had stated that it would also pay McConnell $ 2,000 for his time.
He continued to make paid speeches to the industry throughout the 1980s.
At that time, it was legal for Senators to take up speaking expenses – called "fees" – from businesses and lobbyists with business before Congress.
For McConnell, this included a winter retreat at a legislative conference of the Tobacco Institute in Palm Springs, California, with "a fee of $ 2,000 plus fees," according to McConnell's invitation.
The documents also reveal that McConnell and his Senate office frequently accepted gifts from lobbyists of the tobacco industry, a practice also lawful at the time.
Gifts included tickets to NFL and NBA games, Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment, a Ringo Starr concert, a "premium brandy" and what McConnell called a "beautiful ham" .
McConnell often ended his thanks to tobacco lobbyists with an offer:
"Please, do not hesitate to call me whenever I can help you."
In response to NPR's questions about these gifts, a spokesman for McConnell wrote, "These gifts were legal".
The email continued as follows: "It is wrong to imply that Senator McConnell's support to Kentucky tobacco growers was unique at a time when, regardless of political affiliation to Kentucky, at least some tobacco was grown in 119 out of 120 counties and over 100,000 producers, all members of the Kentucky delegation were fighting for tobacco in Kentucky at that time. "
"We will provide maximum help in the beginning"
Throughout this time, the industry has also provided McConnell with significant contributions to the campaign.
When McConnell applied for re-election, employees of tobacco companies and PACs generally donated to McConnell more than any other Congressman, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Since 1989, it has received at least $ 650,000 in campaign contributions related to the industry and has sought hundreds of thousands more in the form of cash donations to Republican Party committees.
Internally, the tobacco industry knew that its contributions to the campaign were hard to refuse, even as public opinion changed. "In the end, the candidates act in their own interest," said an internal Philip Morris memo in 1996, "so few of those who took our money in the past will stop taking it."
In fact, the documents suggest that McConnell was anxious to solicit these contributions.
When R. Reynolds' lobbyists went to meet McConnell in 1995. Their discussion points for the meeting stated: "Do not be surprised if it raises the need for [R.J. Reynolds] and the industry to help often and early. As we did in previous elections, we will provide maximum support as soon as possible. "
In a letter, McConnell is grateful for the support provided by the Tobacco Institute but fears that an "announced contribution of $ 1,000" has not yet reached his campaign in the Senate.
"It would be very useful if you could check this case," wrote McConnell, "and send your contribution as soon as possible."
McConnell added hand in the margins, "I hope to hear from you soon."
Donations to the McConnell Center unveiled
In addition to contributions to the campaign, the industry also made significant donations to the McConnell Center, located at the University of Louisville. The center offers scholarships to students, holds conferences and holds McConnell's private archives.
For years, McConnell and the university fought to keep the identity of the donors at the center secret. But, in 2004, a lawsuit brought by the Louisville Courier-Journal The newspaper forced the university to reveal who had given the checks.
The disclosure revealed significant contributions from the tobacco companies: $ 200,000 from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., $ 450,000 from Philip Morris, $ 500,000 from the RJR Nabisco Foundation, $ 14,000 from the Tobacco Institute, and $ 125,000. United States dollars.
Observers in ethics say such donations open the door to undue influence on the political process.
"It's troubling," said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"The concern is that the company will donate money to a non-profit organization, Senator McConnell will be aware of this and will be more willing to consider favorably the policies that help this company," said Bookbinder.
In fact, the tobacco documents reveal that R. J. Reynolds was assured that McConnell was personally aware of the donation to his McConnell Center. R.J. Reynolds' lobbyist sent a donation check not to the university, but to McConnell's US Senate office.
After a fight, a request
One of the most striking episodes revealed by the tobacco industry documents occurred in October 1998, an election year mid-term.
"[S]in. McConnell just called me to ask for 200,000 [dollars] soft, "R. Reynolds lobbyist, Tommy Payne, e-mailed a colleague, citing cash contributions not limited by federal law.
After his colleague agreed to send more contributions, Payne followed up by e-mail, "[A]Do you feel a choking sensation? "
A spokeswoman for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment. And McConnell did not answer NPR's questions regarding this e-mail.
"It seemed like they were feeling stuck by Senator McConnell," said Lexington's John Cheves Herald-Leader, the first journalist to discover this email.
The email is even more remarkable for its timing.
A few months earlier, McConnell had helped defeat an important tobacco law championed by Senator John McCain, R-Ariz. McConnell's role in this debate has led to a close examination of his relationship with the industry.
The McCain bill would have ratified and strengthened the proposed regulation between the tobacco industry and the attorneys general of most states. It would also have allowed the FDA to regulate nicotine and punish companies that have failed to reduce teen smoking.
The tobacco industry launched a massive $ 40 million advertising campaign to defeat the bill.
McConnell, who had often run into McCain over a campaign finance law, helped lead the opposition.
"We know, of course, that only 2% of smokers are teenagers," McConnell said. "We hope they do not take this habit, and we should do everything in our power to deter this behavior, but this bill (…) is about government, spending and important taxes. . "
(In fact, almost 90% of smokers start before they are 18 years old.)
Fifty-seven senators eventually voted for the bill – three failing to break the filibuster.
But in the days following the vote, a story appeared.
"Senator Mitch McConnell has risen at a closed meeting of Republican senators to announce good news," The Wall Street Journal reported. "The tobacco industry would run a television advertising campaign to support those who voted against the bill."
Duana Braley / Star Tribune via Getty Images
"This is the most egregious incident I've seen about the appearance of corruption since I was a member of the US Senate," McCain said of McConnell's remarks. witness.
"What I should have done is to get up and say it's a scandal for you to say that sort of thing," McCain said. "But I was so surprised that any member of the Senate said such a thing, I was temporarily out of words."
McConnell called McCain 's accusation of "smear".
"All I said to my colleagues was an obvious statement," said McConnell, "which was that companies would continue to express themselves."
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Children, worked closely with McCain on the bill.
"I thought it had gone beyond the bounds of the brazen attempt to influence the process with campaign contributions," says Myers, "as close as possible to a bribe. "
Everett Koop, Ronald Reagan's general surgeon and Republican, also criticized McConnell.
"It's a scandal of politics to sell," Koop said at the time, "and to my dismay, some Republicans are going to the highest bidder."
In the end, the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice examined the issue. Neither McConnell found anything wrong.
Advocacy for the tobacco industry
In his email to NPR, McConnell said, "We were defending tobacco and we were fighting in every possible way."
And the internal documents on tobacco provide several other examples of McConnell's support to the industry and the role of industry in formulating McConnell's positions:
Secondhand smoke: When the Senate considered bills to ban smoking in the air, Mr. McConnell rose in opposition, saying that "there is no solid evidence and undeniable "that second-hand smoke was a health hazard.
In 1993, he also opposed the ban on smoking in federal buildings, claiming that the government chose cigarette smoke among other "so-called carcinogens" in the workplace , such as "aerosol cleaners". The records suggest that his 1993 statement was in fact entirely written by the Tobacco Institute (although the institute initially provided this statement for another legislator).
An intervention: When new tobacco regulations were proposed to Congress in 1990, a Philip Morris lobbyist wrote that he had asked McConnell and another senator to "intervene" with the George HW Bush White House. on behalf of the industry. "We succeeded," the lobbyist wrote.
After hearing the lobbyist, McConnell wrote a letter to the head of the White House staff saying: "Many have chosen to attack the tobacco industry, but I have chosen [sic] to defend the people of this industry. Fighting this bill may not be favorable to the general public, but as an elected representative, my Kentucky tobacco producers are waiting for it. "
Anti-drug campaign: When the National Commission on Drug Free Schools criticized the tobacco and alcohol industries in its 1990 report, McConnell wrote to a member of the commission to complain. McConnell also argued that tobacco should not be included in anti-drug materials sent to schools.
"By equating the use of cigarettes and beer with cocaine and heroin, we are confusing our kids and that's wrong," wrote McConnell, echoing a language developed by Tobacco Institute.
In an email addressed to NPR, McConnell's office did not address these documents but indicated that McConnell "was still fighting hard for tobacco growers and their families" and that "the goal of the Senator McConnell's bipartisan law on youth without tobacco is to consume fewer tobacco products in the hands of children. "
FDA investigation: When the FDA investigated the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, McConnell asked the General Accounting Office, the original name of the Government Accountability Office, to investigate the FDA itself. . Internal memos show that tobacco lobbyists had discussed the investigation with a senior member of McConnell's staff prior to his application and had included it in their lobbying action plan.
A note written by R. J. Reynolds' lobbying team described McConnell as "a constant thorn on Kessler's side," referring to FDA Commissioner David Kessler. The memo stated that lobbyists were to thank McConnell's staff for fighting the FDA, noting that they had already "done the most for his campaign" with contributions.
In response to NPR, McConnell's office indicated that a GAO investigation had been "requested because the FDA had refused to provide the requested documents regarding their expenditures to the Credit Committee".
Racket case: When the Justice Department accused tobacco companies of being guilty of fraud and racketeering for deliberately misleading the public, McConnell collaborated with the industry to try to discredit and repay the lawsuit.
In 1999, McConnell introduced the Fairness Litigation Act to protect businesses from government lawsuits. He has stated publicly that the legislation "does not concern tobacco". Internal documents, however, show that the legislation had been developed with the help of tobacco company lawyers and was part of Philip Morris's lobbying plan to attack the Justice Department's lawsuit. . The records show that McConnell's office has even asked lobbyists in the industry to propose a hearing before Congress.
McConnell's office told NPR: "The law on fairness in litigation was intended to protect any person or company sued by the federal government, it would simply have required the state and federal governments to follow the lawsuits. same rules as private litigants – ensuring that the same government rules as any litigant. "
In the end, the lawsuit of the Justice Department against the tobacco industry continued. The federal courts determined in a landmark decision that companies had conspired to commit racketeering. Many of the documents disclosed in this case pertain to McConnell himself, including McConnell's 1998 request for fresh money.