Not So Fast, FDA, Says NATO

Group keeping up fight, despite lack of united industry front

Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations

NEW ORLEANS -- It's not easy being a pro-tobacco advocate these days. With Democrats controlling the Oval Office and both houses of Congress; with towns, cities, states and the feds all struggling to shore up budget shortfalls; and with societal norms turning up their noses against anything tobacco, the cigarette and other tobacco products (OTP) enthusiast has become a political pinata.

But in a smoke-filled room--how rare that is these daysrepresentatives covering cigarettes, cigars and smokeless coalesced for one evening to celebrate their efforts to preserve market-freedom [image-nocss] for a scorned industry.

Orchestrating the dinner was NATO, the National Association of Tobacco Outlets. And its board president Andrew Kerstein was sure to remind the good folks of the valiant, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, battle NATO fought to block an across-the-board federal excise tax increase to fund an expanded federal children's health insurance program, familiarly known as SCHIP.

"NATO did everything possible, and then some to stop the higher taxes," Kerstein said. "NATO and its members did indeed fight the good fight."

He detailed the numerous ads the group took out and the direct letter campaign to all 535 federal lawmakers. "NATO's efforts were a textbook case of grassroots lobbying," he said. "Did NATO do everything possible to fight the tax? The answer, I think, is an emphatic yes."

With SCHIP taking effect on April 1, NATO has turned its sights to fight the likely passage that would empower the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to oversee all tobacco products; however, unlike with SCHIP, NATO faces a serious challenge--a lack of unity--that Kerstein and others, at least publicly, chose to ignore.

While it was on the same side of the SCHIP issue as NATO, the country's largest producer of tobacco products, Richmond, Va.-based Philip Morris USA, endorses FDA oversight. Likewise, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) has adopted what is essentially a neutral position, saying it will not oppose the FDA measure as approved by the House of Representatives.

Thus, quilting a united front seems unlikely. Still, Kerstein appealed to the many manufacturers in the audience that make up NATO's board. "NATO will continue to try to be the glue to hold the various components of the tobacco industry together."

Meanwhile, NATO, at its annual awards dinner held at the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, honored Bowling Green, Ky.-based Commonwealth Brands as supplier of the year with Russ Mancuso, vice president of sales, accepting the award. The association also honored Mary Szarmach of Boulder, Colo.-based Smoker Friendly with a special appreciation award.

Mitch Morrison Winsight CSP By Mitch Morrison, Vice President of Retailer Relations
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