June 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Payback Time In Px Cigarette Fight Panel, Funded By Tobacco Firms, Oks Ouster Of Man Who Hiked Price

New York Times
 

When the Pentagon last fall raised the price of discounted cigarettes sold in military supermarkets in an effort to cut consumption and improve troops’ health, medical experts cheered.

But a panel of the House National Security Committee complained that the Pentagon had failed to consult Congress before approving the price increase, and it pledged revenge.

Last week, it was payback time for panel members, many of whom receive campaign donations from tobacco interests.

The full committee approved a proposal last week to stop the Pentagon office that ordered the increase from managing the military’s $16 billion retail businesses.

The responsibility for overseeing commissaries and exchanges would be transferred to the Pentagon’s comptroller.

That would essentially leave the director of the office, Stephen O. Rossetti Jr., out of a job. And that would delight lawmakers on the committee, who have skirmished for months with Rossetti.

The full House is quite likely to support the plan, which is in the Pentagon budget bill for the 1998 fiscal year, when it votes on the bill in the next several weeks.

But the Senate is not expected to be willing to go along, which means that Rossetti’s job may be safe.

A spokesman for the head of the House committee, Rep. John M. McHugh, R-N.Y., said, “There’s been an in-your-face attitude and an effort to sidestep the panel, which has a legitimate oversight role to play.” The panel oversees military morale, welfare and recreation.

The committee is angry at Rossetti’s office for several actions, including efforts to revamp the subsidized commissaries, which are a prized perk for troops.

But what has lawmakers hopping mad is the cigarette policy that Rossetti created last year.

Ten of the 13 lawmakers on the panel received money in 1995 and 1996 from the political action committees of tobacco companies or conglomerates that own tobacco businesses like the Philip Morris Companies, according to a review of Federal Election Commission reports by Common Cause, the publicinterest group.

Now that the price of a carton of brand-name cigarettes has increased in commissaries, to about $15.50 from $11.50 (though still lower than $17.50 in stores off base), tobacco sales are down 40 percent in the commissaries, said Christopher Cox, a spokesman for Rep. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Organizations that support military families and retirees are objecting to the proposal to transfer the oversight of commissaries.

“The last place on earth that a program related to the welfare of military people should be is in the comptroller’s office,” said Bob Norton, deputy director of government relations for the Retired Officers Association.

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