WASHINGTON INSIGHT

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE, THERE'S IRE: A smokers' uprising, orchestrated by Philip Morris Cos., is backfiring on Capitol Hill. A phone bank run by the cigarette maker asked thousands of smokers to call their congressional representatives to protest President Clinton's proposal for a "monster tax"--perhaps $2 a pack--to help finance health care reform. Members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee were swamped--and angered--by the calls."The intensity of this campaign blew away anything else we've had people call in on, including gays in the military," one aide said. . . . After a while, the messages sounded suspiciously similar, and aides determined that most calls had been transferred directly to their offices by Phillip Morris operators. The aides said some callers claimed they were offered free cigarettes for their surrogate lobbying, but Phillip Morris spokesman John Boltz denied it. He explained the call-in effort this way: "We've been deluged with calls from consumers asking for information about the tax and asking what they could do. We've provided an opportunity for them to make a call." "What made us so angry," fumed an aide to a prominent House Republican, "was that the constituents weren't calling on their own. Phillip Morris was paying for it." Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, got so smoked up that he called Phillip Morris and threatened to denounce the firm at a press conference. The calls ceased--but not before Hill staffers exacted revenge. They tied up Phillip Morris' Washington fax number with unwanted documents.

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