Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Executive Director of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids Violates President-Elect Obama's New Rules for Lobbyists on Transition Team

One of the important principles upon which Senator Barack Obama based his campaign for the presidency was that the days of lobbyists running the White House were over and that he would institute tight controls over lobbying influence on administration policy. In a 2007 campaign speech in Iowa, Obama said he was "running to tell the lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over."

Perhaps the first manifestation of this new approach was strict rules that President-Elect Obama announced governing the appointment of lobbyists to his transition team. Describing these rules as "the strictest, and most far reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history," Obama Transition Co-Chair John Podesta announced that "If someone has lobbied in the last 12 months, they are prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied."

According to a New York Times article: "Stephanie Cutter, a transition spokeswoman, said in a written statement that the transition team reflected what she called Mr. Obama’s 'commitment to change the way Washington does business and curb the influence of lobbyists on our government.' 'While these rules disqualify many well-qualified professionals from participating in the transition as a result, they also put in place the right safeguards to prevent any potential conflicts of interest,' Ms. Cutter said."

According to the Transition Team web site, one of the transition team leads for the agency review team that is making strategic policy decisions regarding the Department of Health and Human Services is Bill Corr, Executive Director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

As recently as September 2008, Mr. Corr was a registered lobbyist for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who lobbied for the FDA tobacco legislation (the FDA is under the Department of Health and Human Services) and for Health and Human Services Department appropriations.

The Rest of the Story

By agreeing to serve on the transition team, it appears that Mr. Corr - the Executive Director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids - is in violation of the transition team policy by which any individual who has lobbied in the past 12 months is "prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied." Since tobacco policy, the role of the FDA in tobacco policy, and the appropriation levels for the Department of Health and Human Services are all fields of policy that are intrinsically related to the Department of Health and Human Services, it seems apparent that Corr is in violation of the transition team lobbyist policy.

Even if he recuses himself from tobacco-specific issues, there is no way I believe that Corr can avoid working in the field of policy on which he lobbied. Even considering the funding, scope, and role of the FDA would be inappropriate - and in violation of the rules - because this clearly is related to the field of policy on which Corr lobbied within the past year.

On August 21, 2008, Corr issued a press release and public statement in which he called for passage of the FDA tobacco legislation and for federal funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs (which would come from the Department of Health and Human Services): "Most immediately, Congress should enact pending legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over tobacco products, which would impose specific restrictions on tobacco marketing that appeals to kids and give the FDA authority to further restrict tobacco marketing to the full extent allowed by the First Amendment. ... Both the federal government and the states should increase funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, including mass media advertising campaigns."

In a July 30, 2008 press release, Corr wrote: "The FDA is the right agency to regulate tobacco products because it is the only agency with the combination of regulatory experience, scientific expertise and public health mandate. The pending legislation is carefully crafted to ensure the FDA's new tobacco-related responsibilities do not in any way impede or take resources from its current responsibilities. The legislation would require tobacco companies to pay user fees that would fully fund the FDA's tobacco-related responsibilities so no funding is taken from the FDA's current work. The legislation would also create a new, separate center for tobacco product regulation within the FDA, leaving existing offices and functions within FDA undisturbed by this new authority."

In a May 7, 2008 press release, Corr wrote: "Congress and the Administration should implement the National Action Plan for Tobacco Cessation recommended by an expert scientific advisory panel to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The plan calls for increasing the federal cigarette tax by $2 per pack and using at least half the revenue for smoking cessation initiatives including: a national telephone quitline through which smokers could obtain cessation medication and counseling; a national paid media campaign encouraging cessation (such a campaign should also include a strong youth prevention component); providing coverage for smoking-cessation counseling and FDA-approved medicines under federally funded health care programs including Medicare and Medicaid; increased investment in research to improve smoking cessation therapies; and training for health care providers in treating tobacco dependence. The only portion of this plan the Administration has implemented is a network of state quitlines. Congress should also pass legislation giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate tobacco products."

Thus, Mr. Corr has been lobbying quite broadly on the issue of Department of Health and Human Services policy, priorities, structure, programs, research, training, and funding. It is not possible for him to serve as a lead for the HHS review team and not work in the field of policy on which he lobbied.

Failing to recuse themselves from national policy strategy groups is not something new to prominent tobacco control advocates. I previously criticized Dr. Michael Fiore for failing to recuse himself from the chairmanship of the NIH expert panel which developed a clinical practice guideline for the treatment of tobacco dependence, despite his significant financial interests in pharmaceutical companies.

This might not be all that bad, if it weren't for the fact that we in tobacco control vigorously attack those tied to the tobacco companies for their conflicts of interest and their attempts to influence public policy. It's really the hypocrisy that bothers me the most, more than simply the act of participating despite having what should be a disqualifying conflict of interest.

If President-Elect Obama had named to his transition team overseeing HHS a lobbyist who had represented tobacco companies during the past year, I assure you that anti-smoking groups (including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids) would be attacking the future administration and the lobbyist for this egregious violation of the public's trust. But when it is a tobacco control lobbyist involved, it somehow becomes acceptable.

I guess what's bad for the goose isn't bad for the gander.

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