Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says one of his "highest priorities" is to take on the leading cause of preventable death in the United States: smoking.
McConnell has sponsored a bill, along with Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, that would increase the tobacco purchase age from 18 to 21.
In a speech on the Senate floor last month, McConnell said, "The sad reality is that Kentucky has been the home to the highest rates of cancer in the country. We lead the entire nation in the percentage of cancer cases tied directly to smoking."
Indeed, nearly 9,000 Kentuckians die every year from smoking — roughly 24 people every day. Kentucky also spends $1.9 billion on smoking-related health problems like lung cancer, strokes and premature birth.
"Our state once grew tobacco like none other," said McConnell. "And now we're being hit by the health consequences of tobacco use like none other."
Still, McConnell noted, "I might seem like an unusual candidate to lead this charge."
For many public health advocates, that was a vast understatement.
Following the industry's lead
An NPR review of McConnell's relationship with the tobacco industry over the decades has found that McConnell repeatedly cast doubt on the health consequences of smoking, repeated industry talking points word-for-word, attacked federal regulators at the industry's request and opposed bipartisan tobacco regulations going back decades.
The industry, in turn, has provided McConnell with millions of dollars in speaking fees, personal gifts, campaign contributions and charitable donations to the McConnell Center, which is home to his personal and professional archives.
One lobbyist for R.J. Reynolds called McConnell a "special friend" to the company.
Much of the relationship between McConnell and the tobacco industry happened behind the scenes. But the disclosure of millions of once-secret tobacco industry documents — which are now readily searchable online — has opened a window into McConnell's interactions with tobacco executives and lobbyists.
Many of the records were first reported by the Lexington Herald-Leader, as part of a yearlong investigation into McConnell. Other documents on McConnell's relationships to the industry are being reported by NPR for the first time as part of a series produced by the Embedded podcast.
As a whole, ethics watchdogs say the documents raise questions about how McConnell is crafting legislation dealing with wealthy, powerful industries, even with millions of lives at stake. Cigarette smoking kills an estimated 480,000 people in the United States every year.
And, upon closer look, it appears McConnell's legislation to raise the tobacco purchase age actually followed the industry's lead.
Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA and a major stakeholder in the e-cigarette maker Juul, announced that it supported the measure back in 2018. Several states and localities have already raised their tobacco purchase age.
NPR also found that vaping and tobacco companies are currently employing McConnell's former policy adviser, his former policy director and his former chief of staff to lobby on their behalf. Lobbying groups frequently hire former staffers to top senators of both parties, though former top Senate staffers are prohibited from lobbying their old bosses within a year of leaving government.
In the month before McConnell announced his support for the measure, two government affairs executives at Altria donated to McConnell's Senate campaign.
A spokesperson for Altria did not respond to questions from NPR.
But multiple anti-smoking groups have raised concerns about McConnell's bill and the industry's support for the legislation. The Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids called for major changes to the bill. And the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation has announced its "strenuous opposition."
One concern for these groups is that the legislation will stave off tougher regulations on vaping, particularly regulations on flavored e-cigarettes.
"It's a Jedi mind trick," says Sharon Eubanks, who led the Justice Department's landmark racketeering case against the industry.
E-cigarette companies want to avoid liability for the youth vaping epidemic, says Eubanks, and "the industry's support for such measures gets them off the hook."
McConnell is "covering for them," says Dr. David Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Still, whatever the motivation, Kessler says he welcomes increasing the tobacco age to 21.
"I'll take it," he says. "But this is happening because the industry is in trouble."
In fact, the day of McConnell's announcement, a board member for the Vapor Technology Association, an industry trade association, tweeted, "Hopefully, this will cause #FDA to reevaluate" tougher regulations on flavored e-cigarettes.
Today, the @VaporTechAssoc met w/members of Senator Mitch McConnell’s staff to talk about challenges facing the #vapor industry & @senatemajldr’s proposal to raise the minimum purchase age for #tobacco products to 21+. pic.twitter.com/HncVvYZ7ge— Chris Howard (@VaporLawyer) April 29, 2019
Later that month, members of the vaping industry trade group met with McConnell's staff.
A representative of the Vapor Technology Association did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
In an email, Georgeanna Sullivan, deputy press secretary for McConnell, wrote, "Senator McConnell's bipartisan Tobacco-Free Youth Act has been endorsed thus far by nearly 50 public health groups who share Leader McConnell and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine's goal of having less tobacco products in the hands of young people."
Kaine, like McConnell, represents a large tobacco-producing state, Virginia. But, he said, "what's more important than tobacco, by far, is the health of our young people. So it's the spike in youth smoking that I think has turned this into a matter of urgency."
McConnell's deputy press secretary also pointed out that McConnell helped craft the $10 billion tobacco buyout in the mid-2000s, which ended federal price supports for tobacco and led many tobacco farmers to switch to other crops.
"No one has done more to help transition Kentucky and our nation past tobacco culture than Senator McConnell," wrote Sullivan.
McConnell himself noted to NPR that both Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky fought hard for the tobacco industry.
"There was nobody not fighting for tobacco in Kentucky in that era," McConnell said. "Nobody."
A window into McConnell's contacts with tobacco lobbyists
Since he was first elected to the Senate in 1984, Mitch McConnell has vehemently opposed regulations of the tobacco industry — from banning in-flight smoking, to allowing the FDA to regulate the industry, to including smoking in anti-drug school lesson plans.
To be sure, Kentucky's culture and economy have been intertwined with tobacco growing for decades. McConnell has argued that his support for the industry is because it employs tens of thousands of farmers in the state. "Farming tobacco put shoes on kids' feet," McConnell said in May. "It put dinner on the table." In the 1990s, tobacco contributed more than $2 billion annually to Kentucky's economy, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time.
But the importance of tobacco to Kentucky can sometimes be overstated. The Courier-Journal declared in 1998, "Despite Kentucky Lore, Tobacco Is Not King," noting that tobacco was only 3% of the overall state economy.
Regardless, the industry documents reveal the methods tobacco lobbyists used to gain favor with politicians from tobacco-growing states.
Soon after McConnell won a U.S. Senate seat, he was invited to the Tobacco Institute's boardroom to give a speech in January 1985.
The main lobbying organization for the tobacco industry at the time said it would also pay McConnell $2,000 for his time.
He continued to give paid speeches to the industry throughout the 1980s.
In those days, it was legal for senators to take speaking fees — called "honoraria" — from corporations and lobbyists with business before Congress.
For McConnell, that included a winter retreat to a Tobacco Institute legislative conference in Palm Springs, Calif., with "an honorarium of $2,000, plus expenses," according to McConnell's invite.
The documents also reveal that McConnell and his Senate office frequently accepted gifts from tobacco industry lobbyists, a practice which was also legal at the time.
McConnell often ended his thank you notes to tobacco lobbyists with an offer:
"Please feel free to call on me whenever I may be of assistance to you."
In response to NPR's questions about these gifts, a spokesperson for McConnell wrote, "these gifts were legal."
The email continued, "It is wrong to insinuate that Senator McConnell's support for Kentucky tobacco farmers was unique in an era where, regardless of party affiliation in Kentucky, with at least some tobacco grown in 119 out of 120 counties—and over 100,000 growers, everyone in the Kentucky Delegation was fighting for tobacco in Kentucky in that era."
"We will provide maximum help early"
Throughout this time, the industry also provided McConnell with major campaign contributions.
When McConnell has sought re-election, tobacco company employees and PACs have typically donated to McConnell more than to any other member of Congress, according to data from the Center For Responsive Politics. Since 1989, he has received at least $650,000 in campaign contributions linked to the industry and solicited hundreds of thousands more in soft money donations to Republican Party committees.
Internally, the tobacco industry knew that its campaign contributions were difficult to refuse, even as public opinion shifted against them. "In the end, candidates act in their own self-interest," an internal Philip Morris memo stated in 1996, "so few who have taken our money in the past will stop taking it."
In fact, the documents suggest McConnell was eager to solicit those contributions.
When lobbyists from R.J. Reynolds went to meet with McConnell in 1995, their talking points for the meeting stated, "Don't be surprised if he raises the need for [R.J. Reynolds] and the industry to help often and early. As we have done during his previous elections, we will provide maximum help early."
In one letter, McConnell said he was grateful for the support of the Tobacco Institute but was concerned that a "pledged contribution of $1,000" had not yet made it to his Senate campaign.
"It would be very helpful if you could check into this matter," McConnell wrote, "and forward your contribution as soon as possible."
McConnell added by hand in the margins, "Hope to hear from you soon."
Donations to McConnell Center revealed
On top of campaign contributions, the industry also made major donations for the McConnell Center based at the University of Louisville. The center offers scholarships to college students, hosts lectures and holds McConnell's private archives.
For years, McConnell and the university fought to keep the identities of the donors to the center secret. But, in 2004, a lawsuit by the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper forced the university to disclose who gave checks.
The disclosure revealed major contributions from tobacco companies: $200,000 from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., $450,000 from Philip Morris, $500,000 from the RJR Nabisco Foundation, $14,000 from the Tobacco Institute, and $125,000 from U.S. Tobacco.
Ethics watchdogs say donations like that open the door to improperly influencing the political process.
"It is troubling," said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"The worry is the company is going to give money to the nonprofit, Sen. McConnell is going to know about that, and is going to be more disposed to be to look favorably on policies that help that company," Bookbinder said.
In fact, the tobacco documents reveal that R.J. Reynolds made sure McConnell personally knew about the donation to his McConnell Center. An R.J. Reynolds lobbyist sent a donation check not to the university, but to McConnell's U.S. Senate office.
After a fight, a request
One of the most striking episodes revealed in the tobacco industry documents came in October 1998, a midterm election year.
"[S]en. mcconnell just called me requesting 200,000 [dollars] soft," R.J. Reynolds lobbyist Tommy Payne emailed a colleague, referring to soft money contributions that were not limited by federal law.
After his colleague agreed to send more contributions, Payne followed up in an email, "[A]re you feeling a choking sensation?"
A spokesperson for R.J. Reynolds declined to comment. And McConnell did not answer NPR's questions about this email.
"It sounded like they were feeling squeezed by Sen. McConnell," said John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the first reporter to uncover that email.
The email is even more notable for its timing.
Just a few months earlier, McConnell helped defeat major tobacco legislation championed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McConnell's role in that debate led to intense scrutiny of his relationship to the industry.
The McCain bill would have ratified and strengthened the proposed settlement between the tobacco industry and attorneys general from most of the states. It would have also allowed FDA regulation of nicotine and penalized companies that failed to reduce teen smoking.
The tobacco industry launched a massive $40 million ad campaign to defeat the bill.
McConnell, who had repeatedly clashed with McCain over campaign finance legislation, helped lead the opposition.
"We know, of course, that only 2% of smokers are teenagers," McConnell said. "We wish they would not engage in this habit, and we ought to do everything we can to deter that behavior. But this bill... is about big government and big spending and big taxes."
(In fact, nearly 90% of all smokers begin before they turn 18 years old.)
Fifty-seven senators ended up voting for the bill — three short of breaking the filibuster.
But in the days after the vote, a story emerged.
"Sen. Mitch McConnell stood up at a closed-door meeting of Republican senators to deliver good news," The Wall Street Journal reported. "The tobacco industry would mount a television ad campaign to support those who voted to knock off the bill."
"That to me is the most egregious incident that I have seen about the appearance of corruption since I have been a member of the United States Senate," McCain later said of McConnell's comments, which he witnessed.
"What I should have done is stand up and say this is an outrage for you to say this kind of thing," McCain said. "But I was so astonished that any member of the Senate would say such a thing, I was temporarily at a loss for words."
McConnell called McCain's accusation a "smear."
"All I said to my colleagues was a statement of the obvious," McConnell said, "which was that the companies were going to continue to express themselves."
Matthew Myers, the president of the Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids, worked closely with McCain on the bill.
"I thought it had moved beyond the line of brazenly trying to influence the process with campaign contributions," says Myers, "to as close to an outright bribe as you could find."
C. Everett Koop, Ronald Reagan's surgeon general and a Republican, also criticized McConnell.
"This is a scandal of politics for sale," Koop said at the time, "and to my dismay, some Republicans are going to the highest bidder."
Ultimately, both the Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice looked into the matter. Neither found any wrongdoing by McConnell.
Advocacy for the tobacco industry
In his email to NPR, McConnell said, "We were standing up for tobacco and fighting in every way that we could."
And the internal tobacco documents provide several other examples of McConnell's support for the industry, and the industry's role in shaping McConnell's stances:
Secondhand smoke: When the Senate considered bills to ban in-flight smoking, McConnell stood in opposition, saying that "there is no solid, incontrovertible evidence" that secondhand smoke was a health hazard.
In 1993, he also opposed banning smoking in federal buildings, saying the government was singling out cigarette smoke among other "so-called carcinogens" in the workplace, such as "spray cleaners." The records suggest his 1993 statement was actually entirely drafted by the Tobacco Institute (though the institute initially intended the statement for another lawmaker).
An intervention: When new tobacco regulations were proposed in Congress in 1990, a Philip Morris lobbyist wrote that he had asked McConnell and another senator "to intervene" with the George H.W. Bush White House on behalf of the industry. "We were successful," the lobbyist wrote.
After hearing from the lobbyist, McConnell wrote a letter to the White House chief of staff saying, "Many choose to attack the tobacco industry however, I have chosed [sic] to defend the people of this industry. Fighting this bill may not be favorable to the general public, but as an elected official, my Kentucky tobacco farmers expect it."
Anti-drug campaign: When the National Commission on Drug-Free Schools criticized the tobacco and alcohol industries in its 1990 report, McConnell wrote a member of the commission to complain. McConnell also argued that tobacco should not be included in anti-drug materials sent to schools.
"Equating the use of cigarettes and beer to cocaine and heroin is confusing our kids and it is wrong," McConnell wrote, echoing language developed by the Tobacco Institute.
In an email to NPR, McConnell's office did not address these documents specifically but noted that McConnell "consistently fought hard for tobacco farmers and their families," and that "the goal of Senator McConnell's bipartisan Tobacco-Free Youth Act is to having less tobacco products in the hands of children."
FDA investigation: When the FDA investigated the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, McConnell requested that the General Accounting Office, the original name of the Government Accountability Office, investigate the FDA itself. Internal memos show that tobacco lobbyists had discussed the investigation with a top McConnell staff member prior to his request and included it in their lobbying action plan.
A memo written by the R.J. Reynolds lobbying team described McConnell as "a constant thorn in Kessler's side," referring to then-FDA Commissioner David Kessler. The memo stated that the lobbyists should thank McConnell's staff for fighting the FDA, noting that they had already "maxed out to his campaign" with contributions.
In response to NPR, McConnell's office noted that a GAO investigation was "requested because FDA refused to provide the requested documents regarding their spending to the Appropriations Committee."
Racketeering case: When the Department of Justice accused tobacco companies of decades-long fraud and racketeering for knowingly misleading the public, McConnell worked with the industry to try to discredit and defund the lawsuit.
In 1999, McConnell introduced the Litigation Fairness Act to protect companies from government lawsuits. He said publicly that the legislation was "not about tobacco." But internal documents show that the legislation was drafted with the help of tobacco company attorneys and was a part of a Philip Morris lobbying plan to attack the Justice Department's lawsuit. The records show that McConnell's office even asked industry lobbyists to outline a congressional hearing for them.
McConnell's office told NPR, "The Litigation Fairness Act sought to protect any individual or company sued by the federal government. It simply would have required state and federal government to follow the same rules as private litigants – ensuring that the government has to play by the same rules as any litigant."
Ultimately, the Justice Department's lawsuit against the tobacco industry proceeded. The federal courts determined in a landmark ruling that the companies had conspired to commit racketeering. Many of the documents disclosed in that case involve McConnell himself, including the 1998 email about McConnell's request for soft money.