Dick Armey's Tobacco Ties: The Early Years

Wed, 2013-01-23 05:00Anne Landman
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Dick Armey's Tobacco Ties: The Early Years

This is the first of a three-part series on Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R) and his relationship to Big Tobacco throughout his career.

Dick Armey, who recently resigned from the Tea Party group Freedomworks, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984, as a representative from Texas. A smoker, Armey first appeared on the tobacco industry's radar in 1985 after he appeared at a press conference in support of a bill aimed eliminating the federal tobacco support program – something the industry did not favor.

Even thought he opposed tobacco price supports, which put him squarely on the opposite side of that issue from the tobacco industry, Armey solicited a relationship with the industry.

In 1987, Armey wrote a
letter to Samuel Chilcote, President of the Tobacco Institute, saying he had a lot to learn about politics and asking if Chilcote would do him the “great personal favor” of sitting on his Political Action Committee Advisory Committee. Handwriting on the letter, apparently by Chilcote, cites a scheduling conflict, and indicates Chilcote likely did agree to Armey's request.

Nevertheless, after that the Tobacco Institute started regularly donating funds to Armey's re-election campaigns through its political action committee (“TIPAC”) in fairly small amounts at first – just $250 in 1987. The industry's donations to Armey grew steadily as his time and his influence in the House increased. By 1991, Armey was getting
$500 donations from TIPAC, plus additional donations from individual cigarette companies

By 2000-2001, Armey was routinely pulling in $1,000 donations from TIPAC and individual tobacco companies like R.J. Reynolds (RJR), Lorillard and Philip Morris.
The tobacco industry gravitated towards Armey's philosophy of opposing any tax increases and his strong opposition to legislation that would result in more regulation by the federal government over private enterprise. But that philosophy also put Armey on the opposite side of the fence from the industry occasionally, like when Armey's free-market ideology led him to oppose federal tobacco price support programs, a position that put Armey on the same side of the issue as the American Lung Association.  

After eight years in the House, the tobacco industry realized that while Armey was with them on some issues, he was less than a reliable ally. A 1992 Tobacco Institute memo reviewing congressional races district by district noted that “Rep. Armey has not been a problem for the industry but is a loose cannon and has a reputation for being unpredictable.” 
 

A Helpful but Unpredictable Ally

While Armey sometimes did the industry's bidding, his lack of predictability was a problem for the tobacco industry. For example, in July, 1997, Armey announced that the House of Representatives would oppose a proposed hike in the federal cigarette tax, but by February of 1998, Armey had flipped his position completely and said publicly he would support a cigarette tax as long as the money was used to help fund Medicare and Medicaid.
Armey also had a penchant for making ill-conceived, off-the-cuff public statements about tobacco, making him a less-than-stellar advocate for the industry. A 1994 Washington Times article about smoking policy said,
 
“Rep. Dick Armey, a chain smoking Texas Democrat, says antismoking and other wellness programs should not be promoted as part of health care reform. 'If there are no smokers,' he says, 'how are we going to pay for health reform? But then again, if we can pay farmers for not growing tobacco, perhaps we can tax nonsmokers for however much they're not smoking.' ”  
 
As House Majority Leader in 1998, Armey, formerly an economist, said his “rational intuition” told him that the demand for tobacco was “inelastic.” (That's the word economists use to describe products for which demand does not fall when the price rises.)

But in November of that same year, internal tobacco industry documents showed exactly the opposite was true – that tax increases on cigarettes were very effective at decreasing smoking rates, and that teenagers were particularly susceptible to price increases on cigarettes. 
 
Documents make clear the industry's vexation with Armey. In 2001, Kimberley Tucker of the law firm Foies, Schiller and Flexner, who did defense work for the tobacco industry, wrote a 2001 email to John Hoel, Director of Federal Relations at Philip Morris Management Company, in which she said “…Dick Armey is a big wind bag who SHOULD retire.” 
 
Even though he was a flimsy ally, Dick Armey nevertheless gratefully took Big Tobacco's money and did their bidding, often at crucial times.

In 1998, Armey pushed for blanket liability for cigarette makers – that is, immunity against all personal injury lawsuits – to be included in the big Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between the states and the tobacco industry that was formalized in November of that year. Such protection against lawsuits would have indisuptably been a huge gift, perhaps the biggest ever given to a known-harmful industry.

Unfortunately for the industry, though, that effort failed. That same year, speaking at a Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) event in Charlotte, North Carolina, Armey publicly dismissed the problem of youth smoking as “a parental issue,” rather than an issue for which the industry held any responsibility, a stand that greatly pleased tobacco companies.
 
Robert Egleston, an RJR administrator who attended that meeting, praised Armey in a memo to Carolyn Brinkley, RJR's Public Policy Program Manager, saying Armey's response “showed a real understanding of the issue and strong support for our position.” Egleston said Armey came across as “very sharp and witty” at the event, and said Armey was “probably astute” for “keeping the focus on bashing the IRS and not the Democrats” with regard to a proposal to increase the federal cigarette tax 40 cents per pack. 
 
A 1996 document from the computer files of John Hoel of Philip Morris called Armey a “Helpful Member of the House.” Also listed as “helpful” were John Boehner, and Jesse Helms and Mitch McConnell in the Senate. 
 
In future years, Armey would continue to be helpful to the tobacco industry not only during his time in the House, but beyond. 

Continue to Part 2
 
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