WASHINGTON -- The tobacco industry has begun an aggressive campaign-donation drive, pouring more than $1.5 million into national Republican Party treasuries in the first half of 1995, five times as much as in the period last year.
The surge in donations comes when the industry is facing the most serious threats from Washington in its history.
The industry's chief worry comes from the Food and Drug Administration, which is moving to have nicotine declared an addictive drug, a fundamental change in the government's approach to tobacco. The government now limits cigarette advertisements and requires warnings on packages, but under the FDA proposal the agency would for the first time be able to regulate the product itself.
The industry also faces proposed limits on advertising and measures to curtail tobacco sales to young people. And the Justice Department has begun an inquiry into whether tobacco companies misrepresented to federal regulators the contents and health effects of cigarettes.
The Philip Morris Cos. alone gave $729,749 to Republican funds from January to July, a sevenfold increase from the $99,000 given to Republicans and Democrats combined during the period last year.
Philip Morris and two other companies, RJR Nabisco, which gave $286,450, and Brown & Williamson, which gave $260,000, accounted for most of the industry's gifts. Spokesmen for Philip Morris and RJR did not respond yesterday to questions about the donations.
Joseph S. Helewicz, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson, said the company's donations were made because the company supports Republican ideology.
"We supported the Republican Party not only because of its pro-business platform, but because the party wants to take the country in a direction most Americans want to go," Mr. Helewicz said. "That includes less government, less red tape, a balanced budget and other key planks in the Republican platform." The donations, he added, preceded the FDA's announcement in July that it would seek approval to regulate nicotine as a drug.
But critics of the tobacco industry said this week that the flood of tobacco donations was an attempt to get the Republican leaders to intervene on the industry's behalf.
"What you have is the tobacco lobby with their backs against the wall," said Ann McBride, the president of Common Cause, the public-interest group that compiled the industry-donation figures. "It is the single-most-aggressive campaign to use money to buy influence in the opening months of a Congress," she said. "It's a desperate last effort."
The money went to four national Republican committees that are not subject to the contribution limits set by federal law for individual candidates. The national committees are supposed to use the money for general party-building purposes.
Industry officials and employees also gave $413,300 to individual Republican lawmakers.