Bringing Big Tobacco Down To Size


A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry

By David Kessler

PublicAffairs -- 492pp -- $27.50

Throughout much of 1995, controversial Food & Drug Administration chief Dr. David Kessler had been waging a "battle for the President's soul." Kessler wanted the FDA to take the unprecedented step of regulating tobacco products. But the White House was reeling from the Democrats' loss of Congress. And politicos like White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta were petrified that a quixotic quest to reduce smoking would be political suicide.

Slowly, however, Kessler's back door campaign began to pay off. The FDA tobacco team found allies in Vice-President Al Gore and Clinton's behind-the-scenes adviser, Dick Morris. "The President said he was in a hole and had to `throw long,"' Kessler recounts. Challenge the tobacco companies, Morris responded. Intrigued, the President took a look himself at the growing evidence of the industry's decades of deceit. "I want to kill them. I just read all those documents, and I want to kill them," Clinton fumed to Kessler. The long struggle was finally over, the FDA chief thought.

Well, not quite. "In fact, neither the President nor Panetta had entirely abandoned the possibility of a compromise with the industry," Kessler writes. Such an agreement almost took place. Just before the White House's Aug. 10, 1995, announcement of the Administration's historic tobacco regulations, Kessler remembers, "Clinton looked at me, putting his thumb and forefinger just a fraction of an inch apart, and said the White House had come that close to brokering a deal."

It's one of the many revealing moments in Kessler's surprisingly compelling A Question of Intent--and yet another reminder of the disillusioning ways of Washington. Indeed, Kessler paints a vivid picture of a world where Congressmen read blindly from the tobacco industry's script of lies, where lawyers sell their integrity for a few thousand pieces of silver, and where companies openly brag that "we've got more money than God" while scheming to boost sales of their killer products.

The broad outlines of the story are well known. The earnest Kessler, armed with medical and law degrees, and just enough idealism, arrives in Washington in 1990 to pull a stumbling, scandal-ridden agency out of its doldrums. He shocks business--and angers his Republican overseers--by actually enforcing the nation's food and drug laws. Then, he makes a bid to regulate cigarettes as nicotine delivery devices and manages to finish the task only because the Bush Administration, which wanted to force him out, loses the 1992 election. Ultimately, the agency's tobacco rules are struck down, five votes to four, by the conservative Supreme Court. But by then, Kessler argues, "the world in which the tobacco companies did their business had been fundamentally transformed."

The book could have been a dry memoir. But Kessler has pioneered an oxymoronic literary genre--the policy thriller. With typical doggedness, the former FDA chief interviewed scores of players--including current and former industry executives--dug through voluminous files, and pored over thousands of pages of industry documents and e-mails. As a result, he's able to take the reader along on trips to visit mysterious informants, to describe the machinations deep in the White House and Congress, and to chronicle the industry's own alarm at the mounting FDA challenge. And if the book is curiously devoid of the passion expected from a crusader, well, as Kessler's wife, Paulette, tells him at one point: "Compared to you, a potted plant is a hothead."

Besides, the unadorned details are plenty compelling. There's the image of GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich calling Kessler a "bully and a thug" just before Gingrich steps "onto a plane owned by a tobacco company." There's the trumped-up intimidation lawsuit brought against a key FDA investigator, Gary Light. And there's the long, often cloak-and-dagger search for the crucial evidence the FDA needs to assert jurisdiction over tobacco--the proof that companies intentionally manipulate nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to hook smokers. While hunting for import records showing that high-nicotine tobacco was coming to the U.S. from Brazil, Kessler writes, "I began to have visions of our customs expert, Tim Long, roaming, like the Flying Dutchman, from port to port, forbidden to rest or return home."

Along the way, Kessler also indirectly diffuses the virulent charges hurled his way. Far from being a media hound, Kessler didn't even arrange press coverage--or inform his bosses--when he took his first major enforcement action, seizing orange juice misleadingly labeled "fresh." Neither did he arrive at the agency with an agenda to get tobacco. When the idea was first suggested, "I thought [it] was crazy," Kessler recalls. "From the start, our efforts had been more of an improvisation than a master plan."

I wish that Kessler had directly addressed one troubling question, however. The FDA team spent huge amounts of time and resources uncovering evidence and building its strong case for regulation. But did this massive effort harm the perennially strapped FDA's ability to perform its many other tasks?

Kessler is silent on that issue, though he does fret about one cost. "Towards the end--especially when my critics attacked me personally...I sometimes wondered whether I could recommend that young people consider a career in government," he says. Still, he adds, "those dark thoughts never lingered long in my mind." As Kessler writes, this is one battle that was worth fighting.

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