- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

Like smoking, defending tobacco just isn’t cool anymore.

Just ask Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, home to tobacco giants R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Lorillard Tobacco Co., and thousands of their employees. Last year, North Carolina farmers produced $686 million worth of tobacco, nearly half the value of the entire U.S. output.

Mr. Burr, who is running for re-election next year, spent much of the past week arguing in the Senate against a popular bill that would regulate tobacco for the first time.

For the most part, he stood alone.

It wasn’t always so lonely.

Just five years ago, Mr. Burr was a congressman running for the Senate and had powerful allies such as then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, who helped kill similar tobacco legislation.

Congress has a long history of legislative leaders defending the industry. Today, however, friends of Big Tobacco are few and far between.

It’s not for lack of trying.

Individuals associated with the industry gave more than twice the amount of money to federal candidates during the 2008 election cycle than they had in 2006.

But that money wields less influence than it once did. Few lawmakers are willing to risk the political clout on defending an industry that many see as a political relic in an age where the public increasingly rejects tobacco products.

That shift has brought a change in strategy for the industry and its allies on Capitol Hill.

“Fifteen years ago, it was, ‘We don’t support any regulation.’ Now it’s about the form and content of the regulation,” said Tommy Payne, a top lobbyist and executive vice president at R. J. Reynolds.

The Senate bill would give regulatory authority to the Food and Drug Administration and let the agency control the ingredients in tobacco products.

Instead of simply fighting the proposal, Mr. Burr and Sen. Kay Hagan, North Carolina Democrat, have tried to highlight what they say are flaws in the legislation and have offered an alternative that would create a new agency to regulate tobacco. The senators say the current measure wouldn’t do enough to reduce smoking.

Under their plan, the new agency would study the benefits of any reduction in nicotine levels; the competing bill would not require such studies. Their proposal would encourage adult smokers to switch to smokeless tobacco products, which the lawmakers and the companies claim are less risky than cigarettes.

That would help R. J. Reynolds and Altria Group Inc., parent company of Philip Morris USA, which have bought smokeless tobacco companies in recent years.

Even Mr. Burr is distancing himself from the industry. He said he is not defending tobacco companies, but helping to save jobs in the health sector because adding a new mission to the already-stretched FDA could have disastrous consequences.

“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,” Mr. Burr said. “I am passionate because I think we are getting ready to make a very serious mistake.”

For most of the nation’s history, tobacco has held a special place on Capitol Hill. Early lawmakers were farmers, and many of them grew the plant. Tobacco leaves are carved into the speaker’s rostrum in the House chamber and adorn columns inside the building.

“The debate in both the House and Senate reflects a very new day,” said Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who has been fighting for regulation for more than 15 years.

Even Mr. Burr’s own state has accepted the inevitable. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue signed a bill last month that will ban smoking in the state’s restaurants and bars.

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