Tobacco and Its Money Have Minority Allies in New York
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY New York Times January 4, 2000
State Senator Efrain Gonzalez Jr. of the Bronx decided to open a Washington office for a Hispanic legislators' association a few years ago, figuring that he would have little trouble raising the necessary $40,000.
Following something of a tradition among black and Hispanic members of the New York Legislature, Mr. Gonzalez called a lobbyist for Philip Morris, and came away with the entire amount.
A colleague from the borough, Assemblywoman Gloria Davis, receives $5,000 annually from Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, for a Thanksgiving meal for the poor in her predominantly black district. Seeking aid for a program to teach nonviolence to young people, Ms. Davis said that she raised $22,000 from another cigarette giant, R. J. Reynolds.
Such corporate grants are not only a cornerstone in a decades-old campaign by the cigarette companies to foster good will in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, an important cigarette market. The grants have also helped the industry cement ties to black and Hispanic officials, who are often one of the few factions in the Democratic Party to oppose new restrictions on smoking.
While the industry is increasingly ostracized by many politicians in New York, some black and Hispanic state lawmakers depict it as a kindhearted corporate citizen, playing down the health consequences of smoking and asserting that they are not in a position to reject assistance from companies making legal products.
That alliance in New York, which has parallels in Washington and other state capitals, has until recently been a significant factor in the industry's enviable record in Albany. Even last month, when the tide suddenly turned against the tobacco companies in the Legislature for the first time since 1993, some black and Hispanic lawmakers came to their defense.
The lawmakers questioned a move by Gov. George E. Pataki and legislative leaders to pay for an expansion of health care for the uninsured in part by nearly doubling the cigarette tax, a measure that delighted antismoking groups. Ultimately, the lawmakers said they supported the bill because they did not want to hinder a new health-care program, but among Democrats, their views stood out.
"Another cigarette tax is a little out of hand," said Mr. Gonzalez, who until last month was president of the legislators' group, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. "It just looks sexy politically."
Antismoking groups say they are dismayed by the lawmakers' stances, contending that because blacks in particular smoke more and suffer higher rates of smoking-related illnesses than whites, the lawmakers should treat the industry more harshly. Such criticism has arisen before. But documents disclosed recently by the industry in smoking litigation cast the dispute in a new light, showing the extent of its generosity -- and links to policymaking.
An internal Philip Morris document from 1988, for example, lists roughly 125 black groups that the company assisted across the nation: from the Bedford-Stuyvesant Real Estate Board (which received $200), to the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus ($6,000) to the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club ($12,000).
Next to some of the listings are the names of black politicians from New York and elsewhere who requested the grants. There is also a column titled "support on issues," which describes how some of the groups backed Philip Morris's effort to block smoking restrictions and cigarette taxes.
While Philip Morris did not disclose documents on its current giving, interviews indicate that it has not significantly diminished -- indeed, the company is now seeking to soften its image by highlighting its philanthropy.
It donated $30,000 in 1998 to sponsor conferences for groups representing black and Hispanic New York lawmakers. The Bronx Democratic Committee, which is led by Assemblyman Roberto Ramirez, the most influential Hispanic politician in Albany, received $19,000 in the last three years from Philip Morris, and $10,000 more from R. J. Reynolds, according to campaign finance records.
In interviews, several black and Hispanic lawmakers scoffed at what they said was the heavy-handed approach of smoking opponents. They acknowledged that they were sympathetic to the industry because of its financial assistance, but dismissed suggestions of a quid pro quo.
And they said it was wrong to scrutinize their relationship to the tobacco industry while ignoring white lawmakers, especially Republicans, with similar ties.
"I don't think that I was sent to Albany to govern somebody's bedroom," Ms. Davis said. "We have enough laws on the books now."
The lawmakers said that in the past, when corporate America shunned black and Hispanic causes and had little interest in diversifying the work force, the tobacco companies were different.
"I can tell you that 25 years ago, when you could only get 10 people to show up for a caucus event, Philip Morris was always there," said Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr., a Harlem Democrat who is the most powerful black lawmaker in Albany. He was referring to the Black, Puerto Rican and Hispanic Legislative Caucus in the State Legislature.
"Of course, today, it is looked upon as something nefarious," Mr. Farrell said. "Maybe we're addicted to that like you become addicted to cigarettes."
Peggy Roberts, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris, said the company was proud of its involvement with black and Hispanic lawmakers.
"Our history with diversity and minority employment goes back to the 50's," she said. "We are very anxious to build relationships with lots of different groups. These relationships are important to us, and if they help us get an understanding, or at least an audience with legislators from these communities, that is great."
Asked whether the company linked grants to official action, she said, "That's unfair. What we are trying to do is build relationships so that we can have a dialogue, and that is as far as it goes."
Representatives of R. J. Reynolds did not respond to several requests for comment.
Debates have long simmered over charitable giving by the tobacco companies, especially Philip Morris, which is among the biggest such benefactors in the nation and has carved a large role in financing the arts in New York City. Nonprofit groups have grappled with whether to refuse such money because it is generated in large part by profits from smoking. Many continue accepting it.
In places like Harlem, some groups have gone on campaigns against what they say is the tobacco companies' policy of flooding black and Hispanic neighborhoods with advertising and of aiming menthol-flavored brands like Newport, Kool and Salem at black smokers. Even so, many local politicians have remained on the sidelines.
A few have spoken out, including Assemblyman Albert Vann of Brooklyn. More common are the sentiments of black and Hispanic members of the Assembly Health Committee, which has been a battleground on the issue in recent years, particularly over a bill that would impose a state ban on smoking in restaurants.
In 1998, the bill's sponsors suffered a startling rebuff when four black and Hispanic Democrats on the Democratic-controlled committee -- Ms. Davis, Mr. Ramirez, James Gary Pretlow of Westchester County and Darryl C. Towns of Brooklyn -- voted with Republicans and killed the bill.
Saying that one of his primary concerns was economic development, Mr. Ramirez explained that he could not ignore the economic effects of more restrictions on his district. If fewer people smoke, then bodegas, which are often the backbone of Hispanic neighborhoods, will lose cigarette sales, he said.
White lawmakers, he said, "have the luxury and the flexibility of taking positions that are much more popular, because the consequences of their actions are never going to be felt in their districts."