For dozens of Congress members and congressional aides, getting caught up on tobacco-related issues meant spending the weekend at a lavish golf resort in a getaway sponsored by the Tobacco Institute.
The three-day annual legislative conference of the tobacco industry’s lobbying group wrapped up Monday at The Phoenician resort.
Institute officials refused to say how many people attended, which members of Congress were there or what was on the agenda, but said the main topic of conversation was the new federal tobacco regulations taking effect Feb. 28. More regulations, set to take effect in August, are being fought in North Carolina federal court.
“This is a private meeting,” said Walker Merryman, vice president of the institute. “Since the furthest thing from our minds is making news, it’s not public.”
Anti-tobacco groups condemned the meeting as a “golf junket” for lawmakers and placed newspaper advertisements around the country urging people to ask their representatives whether they attended. State Atty. General Grant Woods, whose lawsuit accuses tobacco companies of contributing to the delinquency of minors, staged a counter-event Monday at a miniature golf course.
The institute declined to say whether attending lawmakers came from tobacco-producing states such as Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Calls to pro-tobacco lawmakers from the four states were not returned Monday, including one to Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.). Coble’s aide said Friday the congressman would be at the resort.
Under new congressional ethics rules, legislators are barred from accepting most gifts from special interests. However, they may accept privately paid travel for fact-finding events that are consistent with the interests of their constituents.