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Thomas Bliley Jr., tobacco ally who exposed industry deceptions, dies at 91

Thomas Bliley Jr., a former mayor of Richmond who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a fierce Republican ally of the tobacco industry but later helped force the release of internal company documents on health risks that led to historic legal settlements, died Nov. 16 at his home. home in Henrico County, Virginia. He was 91 years old.

Death was announcement by Bliley’s Funeral Homes, a Richmond-based business operated by Mr. Bliley’s family. No cause was given.

During two decades in Congress, from 1981 to 2001, Mr. Bliley built an image of an old-fashioned presence, sporting his trademark bow ties, displaying courteous manners and looking for ways to work with Democrats. Yet he stood firm as an unwavering defender of the tobacco giants, a significant economic force in his district and a reliable campaign contributor.

Mr. Bliley earned the nickname “Philip Morris Congressman” and for years displayed a collage of the tobacco giant’s brands in his congressional office. “I’ll be damned if they have to be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness,” Mr. Bliley said. said in 1994, to defend cigarette company executives during congressional hearings on studies linking nicotine to addiction and disease.

When Mr. Bliley assumed the chairmanship of the House Health and Environment Subcommittee In 1995, one of his first acts was to lift the smoking ban – a particular attack on fellow Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Democrat of California), an ardent enemy of the tobacco industry. Mr. Bliley took a puff from his pipe.

A pro-tobacco agenda was also expected, since Mr. Bliley led the powerful House Commerce Committee after Republicans took control of the House. GOP wave in the 1994 elections. For a time, tobacco issues took a back seat.

Mr. Bliley and his committee were immersed in the details of the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, which opened up competition in telephone service and cable television. “I want to break up the monopolies,” Mr. Bliley said, even as critics said some aspects of the changes weakened competition.

Mr. Bliley even waded into the early culture wars stoked by the incendiary Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). Mr. Bliley denounced Earth Day as a “liberal-leaning political event aimed at Election Day.”

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, state Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III and Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Minnesota were embroiled in a conflict situation. trial against tobacco companies seeking to recoup the costs of smoking-related illnesses. Humphrey had demanded a huge amount of documents from the companies. The documents were part of the files of tobacco company Liggett & Myers, which broke ranks with the industry by settling health-related claims and waiving attorney-client privilege to allow disclosure.

No one predicted Mr. Bliley’s next moves. In 1997, he subpoenaed tobacco companies for the disclosure of documents deemed exempt from professional secrecy.

“If the tobacco industry is engaging in criminal or fraudulent activity, then Congress has the right, the duty, to know that before enacting legislation granting the industry any form of immunity from prosecution,” Mr. Bliley said.

Then, a surprise discovery, the cache of 864 documents was job on the Commerce Committee website in December 1997.

Among the revelations were a 1968 strategy by the tobacco company Brown & Williamson on how to counter medical research into tobacco as a carcinogen, and a 1967 letter between tobacco lawyers about the benefits, for public image, of using a doctor to promote smoking. (In 1998, Minnesota began receiving millions of additional pages of internal communications from cigarette manufacturers.)

A look at the archives that exposed Big Tobacco

Some longtime tobacco industry allies have denounced Mr. Bliley as a renegade. Rather, his plan was to gain influence in future settlement negotiations. Mr. Bliley was reportedly angered at being excluded by Philip Morris during discussions with lawmakers over a proposed deal with tobacco companies to pay $368.5 billion to states over 25 years.

The release of the documents, Mr. Bliley’s aides said, gave him more credibility with anti-tobacco groups and gave him influence during continued negotiations with Big Tobacco while the proposed settlement plan was in the works. ‘dead end.

“If only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Tom Bliley could get the tobacco industry to make the compromises that would result in a deal in Congress,” said Larry Sabato, a government professor at the University of Virginia, to the Washington Post at the time.

A wide range agreement in 1998, called the Master Settlement Agreement, was concluded between 46 states and four tobacco companies, including Philip Morris. The deal ended most tobacco advertising, blocked the tobacco industry’s outreach to young people, and generated an annual flow of billions of dollars. to states, including Virginia. (Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi and Texas have separate agreements with the tobacco industry.)

‘Frankly, I was shocked by what I read’ in RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. documents about efforts to target teen smokers, Mr. Bliley said tobacco industry executives at a hearing on Capitol Hill. These revelations, he said, “have shaken my confidence that your companies care about the truth.”

The documents subpoenaed by Mr. Bliley were also part of the Justice Department’s 1999 lawsuit against the tobacco industry. In 2006, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler governed that tobacco companies violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring to mislead the public about health dangers. She ordered companies to remove marketing labels such as “low tar” and “mild” but said previous court rulings had prevented additional fines.

Thomas Jerome Bliley Jr. was born on January 28, 1932 in Chesterfield County, Virginia. His parents were involved in the family mortuary business, founded in the 1870s.

Mr. Bliley earned a degree in political science from Georgetown University in 1952, then served three years as a Navy lieutenant. He later worked at the funeral home, including as president of the company.

He was elected to the Richmond City Council as a Democrat in 1968 and appointed mayor two years later. At the time, the position was not popularly elected. He served until 1977, as the city’s demographics shifted and black residents gained a greater political voice.

Mr. Bliley switched to the Republican Party after his successful campaign for the House of Representatives in 1980. In Congress, he was among the first supporters of honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holidaywhich was promulgated in 1983.

In 2000, Mr. Bliley joined with Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) to win approval for a memorial to 14 black soldiers fighting for the Union in a battle of September 1864 in New Market Heights. Mr. Bliley also helped push for changes in Richmond city government, which paved the way for municipal elections in 2004. won by former Governor Doug Wilder.

Survivors include his wife of 66 years, the former Mary Virginia Kelley; his daughter Mary Vaughn Bliley Utter; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A son, Thomas Jerome Bliley III, died in 2020.

While adept at political maneuvering in Congress, Mr. Bliley has kept a lower profile outside the Capitol. He generally kept his comments to reporters short and to the point. A devout Roman Catholic, he said being invited to Sunday political shows prevented him from attending mass. once requested whether he would consider appearing on ABC’s late-night show “Nightline.”

“You know,” he replied, “I go to bed way before they record.”

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