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When tobacco needed a voice, CAGW spoke up and profited

Published April 2, 2006

WASHINGTON - When tobacco companies came under fire in the late 1980s, they searched desperately for new friends. They found one in Citizens Against Government Waste.

Both sides profited from the relationship. CAGW got at least $245,000 from the tobacco industry, while the companies got a fresh and supposedly independent voice to oppose government regulation of their product.

Letters and memos at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California at San Francisco provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the relationship between CAGW and the tobacco companies.

An internal memo from an R.J. Reynolds executive in 1990 shows how the industry sought new allies from a wide range of groups - evangelical Christians, antilabor groups, conservative think tanks.

"Ultimately, we're talking about a "movement,' a national effort to change the way people think about government's - and big business' - role in their lives," wrote Tim Hyde, RJR's senior director of public issues.

CAGW and other taxpayer groups were ideal because of their antigovernment approach.

By the mid 1990s, tobacco money was flowing to CAGW, according to financial records at the library. It's likely CAGW received more than $245,000 because the records are incomplete. CAGW would not reveal its complete list of contributions to the St. Petersburg Times.

In 1995, the industry grew alarmed when the Clinton administration floated the possibility of having the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco. In response, the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobbying group, sent a memo with marching orders for allies such as CAGW.

It said First Amendment groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Legal Foundation were to complain that the government's proposal was a "challenge to freedom of speech." Conservative groups, including CAGW, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute were to speak against "government over-regulation" and the possible harm to the FDA's core mission of regulating food and drugs. Other groups were supposed to decry the "slippery slope of over-regulation."

Another memo from the Tobacco Institute said CAGW and conservative think tanks "are prepared not only to submit comments (against the Clinton administration's FDA proposal), but also provide economic analyses of various sorts and play a role in the media and legislative programs, as well as general "atmospherics.' "

CAGW followed the script. Later memos indicate the group filed letters opposing FDA regulation.

In 1998, when the companies decided to oppose a bill to create a nationwide settlement of tobacco lawsuits, CAGW echoed the companies' complaints. In a letter to senators, CAGW said the bill "has become too expensive and amounts to a major tax on low-income smokers."

Asked about his group's tobacco work, CAGW president Tom Schatz said, "We have always welcomed contributions to support the issues we support. Many of them have to do with fighting higher taxes and more regulations."

Times Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at or 202 463-0575.

[Last modified April 2, 2006, 01:25:16]

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