Stimulus Grants Used to Lobby for Tobacco Taxes?

NATO calls for an explanation, and for practice to stop

Kathleen Sebelius

WASHINGTON -- The National Association of Tobacco Outlets joined the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce in calling for a detailed response from Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Health and Human Services Department Secretary, about the potential illegal use of federal tax dollars to support lobbying efforts.

“For more than two years, members of Congress, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services’ own Office of the Inspector General, have raised concerns about the use of the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) federal stimulus program funds,” said Thomas Briant, executive director and legal counsel for NATO. “Questions and requests for copies of grant applications and other documents, which should be a matter of public record, have been largely ignored. It is time for Secretary Sebelius to appropriately address, and halt, any potential misuse of federal funds that would violate of federal law.”

Federal law states that “no part of the money appropriated by any enactment of Congress shall, in the absence of express authorization by Congress, be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service, advertisement, telegram, telephone, letter, printed or written matter, or other device, intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress, a jurisdiction, or an official of any government, to favor, adopt, or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation, law, ratification, policy, or appropriation. ”

In an Aug. 13 letter to Sebelius, the U.S House Committee on Energy and Commerce noted that as early as April 2010, questions were raised about CPPW grantees “reporting information to the CDC regarding lobbying activities for specific laws and policy goals, such as higher tobacco and sugar taxes,” and even “zoning restrictions to halt restaurant construction.” A July 29 “Early Alert Letter” from the Office of Inspector General to CDC Director Thomas Frieden also cited potential “inappropriate lobbying activities using CPPW funds.”

As one example of a possible violation, Briant cited a $10-million HHS/Center for Disease Control grant to the Philadelphia Department of Health. The grant included funds to promote adoption of an ordinance that would have required a graphic health warning poster to be placed next to each cash register in Philadelphia stores that sell tobacco products.

Health education programs that inform the public about the health impact of tobacco use, or the consumption of sugary or fatty foods, are acceptable uses of federal funds under the law, Briant said. “However, actually encouraging the adoption of specific taxes, policies and zoning ordinances is lobbying, an illegal use of federal funds. Government grant funds should not be used for these purposes under the guise of ‘public education.’ It is also a waste of taxpayer money, diverting millions of dollars from initiatives that would more be more beneficial to public health.”

The committee’s letter requested that Secretary Sebelius’ office, by Aug. 20, submit to the Energy and Commerce Committee the following:

  • A clear interpretation of 18 U.S.C. 1913 as the prohibition on lobbying applies to these CDC stimulus grants
  • All CDC files for grantees of the CPPW and Community Transformation Grant programs
  • A detailed plan of corrective measures that CDC will undertake in response to the OIG July 29, 2012, Early Alert Letter

The deadline specified in the committee’s request expired Monday of this week. “We trust that the secretary will begin to take seriously these potentially illegal and wasteful uses of taxpayer dollars,” Briant said.