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Smoke in Starr's Chamber | The Nation

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Smoke in Starr's Chamber

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Pressures on the big tobacco companies long antedated Bill Clinton's arrival in the White House, of course. Nevertheless, the industry's political effort, which was massive--and quite bipartisan, though with an elective affinity to the GOP's stout laissez-faire traditions--gave it formidable protection. Though one of Clinton's first acts as President was to ban smoking in the White House, the evidence is that the Administration was not then looking for a major confrontation. Dr. David Kessler, whom the Administration kept on as head of a Food and Drug Administration that was already under siege from many other industries, only slowly decided to broaden the campaign against tobacco, which his agency traditionally had not sought to regulate.

This essay is adapted from Thomas Ferguson's "Blowing Smoke: Who Wants Clinton Impeached And Why," for American Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, edited by William Crotty.

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Thomas Ferguson
Thomas Ferguson, a contributing editor of The Nation, is professor of political science at the University of...

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Several developments eventually changed this situation. An inevitable consequence of bringing together the advocates of sweeping healthcare reform was the bringing together of the advocates of a wider campaign against the tobacco industry. In addition, the logic of the Administration's health plan ran sharply counter to the interests of the tobacco companies. As a proven cause of massive medical expenditures, the industry was naturally suspect. No less important, however, tobacco was a vulnerable source of new tax revenues in a period when raising taxes was politically very costly. Indeed, to fund the health plan, the White House proposed a huge increase in excise taxes on cigarettes, from 24 cents a pack to 99 cents.

This proposal immediately sent the industry to battle stations. What happened next, however, moved the conflict--and in the end, it appears, US politics--to a whole new level of vehemence. Studies that suggested smoking might fall sharply if nicotine were reduced persuaded the FDA's Kessler that nicotine might in fact qualify as an addictive substance in the technical, legal sense of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. This had sweeping implications, for regulating tobacco would then fall squarely within the FDA's purview. As a report for CQ Researcher put it, "If the FDA successfully claims jurisdiction over tobacco, the agency could not only determine how much nicotine would be allowed in cigarettes but also how they are labeled, marketed and distributed. In short, the FDA would gain virtual control over cigarette production and could even totally ban tobacco products.... FDA regulation 'could mean, ultimately, removal from the market of tobacco products containing nicotine at levels that cause or satisfy addiction,' Kessler wrote in February [1994]. 'Only those tobacco products from which the nicotine had been removed or, possibly, tobacco products approved by the FDA...would then remain on the market.'"

In the spring of 1994, Kessler testified to Congress that the industry had known for decades that nicotine was addictive but concealed that from the public. He also argued that tobacco companies had calibrated levels of nicotine in cigarettes to keep smokers hooked.

The tobacco industry counterattacked. Taking out full-page ads in newspapers and turning loose a legion of lobbyists, it fought back on many fronts. But while it succeeded in scaling back the proposed cigarette tax even before the Clinton healthcare plan's fiery crash landing, the industry's efforts to ward off the FDA were unavailing.

At the end of June 1994, talk of the industry's sweeping campaign and possible compromises surfaced in the national press. In July, however, the New England Journal of Medicine published a major study by two researchers whose previous work, according to the Washington Post, "has been heavily relied on by the FDA." The new study, which the Post suggested "also could prove influential" in shaping a forthcoming report by an FDA advisory panel, presented a case for compelling cigarette makers to reduce the nicotine content of their products by about five-sixths over a period of years. The newspaper report noted that the study's authors readily conceded that such proposals "might seem drastic to some." Quoting an FDA spokesperson's praise of the report as providing "the kind of information that the advisory committee will be working with in August," the story reported that the FDA group planned to begin hearings into "nicotine addiction and dosage" on the first of August.

That report, and an accompanying denunciation by the Tobacco Institute, appeared in the Post on July 14, 1994. That very day Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, the two conservative Republican senators from North Carolina, the state with the biggest stake of all in tobacco, met Judge David Sentelle for lunch in Washington. Sentelle, like Faircloth (who had once headed North Carolina Democrats for Helms before switching parties and winning election to the Senate) a Helms protégé, had formerly chaired the Republican Party of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina. He had also served as a delegate to the 1984 Republican convention from the Tarheel State and named one of his daughters "Reagan" in honor of the President.

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