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Tobacco Industry Has Few Friends Left in Congress

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The U.S. tobacco industry, which once had the power to block most federal legislation it did not like, has lost most of its allies on Capitol Hill apart from a handful of lawmakers from traditional tobacco states.

The Associated Press reported June 7 that the industry still spends millions on lobbying against measures such as the pending FDA tobacco-regulation bill, but that the money doesn't buy the influence it once did.

Lawmakers like Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) may advocate on behalf of their home-state business, but few other legislators are willing to buck public opinion to support the interests of Big Tobacco. Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) are among a handful of other lawmakers who have publicly opposed the FDA bill.

That's a change from even a few years ago, when former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) helped kill tobacco-regulation legislation. Nowadays, even Burr must take pains to say that he's protecting jobs, not the tobacco industry.

“The media has tried to make this a story about the tobacco companies and in fact it's about the agricultural community, adult choice and it's a story about the integrity of the FDA,” Burr said. “I am passionate because I think we are getting ready to make a very serious mistake.”

The changing landscape is recognized even by members of the industry, even as individuals associated with Big Tobacco firms doubled their political donations between 2006 and 2008.

“Fifteen years ago, it was, 'We don't support any regulation,'” said RJ Reynolds lobbyist Tommy Payne. “Now it's about the form and content of the regulation.”

“The [FDA] debate in both the House and Senate reflects a very new day,” said Matthew Myers, the president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.  

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