Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg

Miami Rep. Diaz-Balart Fought Cigar Regulations Days After Taking Tobacco Cash

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart sure loves cigars. He enjoys them so much that at a February 14 federal budget hearing, the GOP congressman railed against the Food and Drug Administration's plans to impose new regulations on the cigar industry. He claimed the rules were needlessly "burdensome" and unfair.

"I want to go talk to you about an industry that has a rich history in South Florida — the cigar industry," Diaz-Balart said. "It has been struggling in the face of excessive, burdensome regulations imposed by the FDA."

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It's possible that Diaz-Balart's love of a good stogie might not have been his only motivation for that particular stance, though. Federal records show Diaz-Balart had taken a $1,000 campaign check from the tobacco giant formerly known as Philip Morris only 13 days before that budget meeting.

In fact, even before that check rolled in, Diaz-Balart had already accepted $4,000 from the company now known as Altria Group during this election cycle. And less than a month after publicly railing against cigar regulations, Altria — which makes Marlboro cigarettes and multiple cigar brands — kicked Diaz-Balart another $2,500 March 7, bringing his election-cycle total from the tobacco powerhouse to $7,500.

So far, no Florida member of Congress has received more money from Altria during the 2018 election cycle than Diaz-Balart. His fellow Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo has accepted $5,000 from Altria during 2018. Diaz-Balart is running for reelection against Democrat Mary Barzee Flores, a first-time candidate who recently switched congressional races.

A spokesperson for Diaz-Balart did not immediately respond to messages from New Times about the tobacco donations.

Diaz-Balart has long been a favorite Florida candidate of Altria's. Though the company, which is one of the largest political donors in Washington, has certainly given more cash to a bipartisan slew of congresspeople over the years (GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy and hometown Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine are favorites, while Altria does not crack Diaz-Balart's 20 largest donors since he entered Congress in 2002), records show Diaz-Balart seems to have a history of taking cash from the tobacco manufacturer while just so happening to vote in favor of bills that the company supports.

Take, for instance, the 2016 election cycle: Records show Altria pitched $8,500 to his reelection campaign that year. At the same time, Diaz-Balart cosponsored a failed bill called the "Fair BEER Act," which federal lobbying records show Altria supported that year. At the time, Altria controlled a 27 percent stake in SABMiller, the beer giant that until October 2016 owned Miller Brewing Company. Critics assailed the Fair BEER Act as a tax gift to huge breweries; Diaz-Balart became one of the bill's eventual 118 cosponsors March 4, 2015, and received a $2,500 check from Altria only 14 days later.

That same year, Diaz-Balart also supported the Restoring Americans' Healthcare Freedom Reconciliation Act of 2015, which would have rolled back massive parts of the Affordable Care Act, including ripping Medicaid coverage from certain low-income people. Records show Altria, which had been criticized in the past for donating to anti-Obamacare candidates while benefitting from Obamacare subsidies, lobbied for the bill.

Diaz-Balart also happens to sit on the five-member director board of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute — alongside a senior Altria lobbyist named John Hoel. Miami Rep. Curbelo is also on the organization's board, and Diaz-Balart's brother, ex-Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, is the group's chair:

Miami Rep. Diaz-Balart Fought Cigar Regulations Days After Taking Tobacco CashEXPAND
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Diaz-Balart and/or his buddies also seem to personally enjoy a good smoke: According to the Washington Post, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers in 2013 held a "cigars and cocktails" fundraiser for Diaz-Balart in D.C. that year.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Diaz-Balart mere months ago begged Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney to pare back regulations on cigar manufacturers. The FDA in 2016 expanded the definition of "tobacco products" to include regulating premium cigars, but anti-tobacco advocates have warned that the FDA in 2018 might be looking to revise the rule and loosen cigar regulations. One anti-tobacco group, Truth Initiative, told CNBC that the regulatory debate is "a huge step backwards and a waste of time."

But Diaz-Balart doesn't seem to think so. The congressman in February brought up that he thinks FDA regulations on cigar-makers are choking the industry. He said he became aware that the FDA might begin looking into its cigar regulations again soon and asked Mulvaney to contact his office to speak. He also begged the federal government to ensure that FDA regulations include a "cost benefit" analysis, which is sort of weird because the FDA's job is, technically, to prevent products from making people sick or killing people, not to protect tobacco-industry profits.

Diaz-Balart's comments begin at 55:18 in the following clip:

Though Mulvaney's OMB does not directly set the FDA's budget, the agency reviews the FDA budget to check if it complies with the president's platform.

For what it's worth, Miami does have a fairly large home-rolled cigar industry, but Altria owns the John Middleton Co., which manufactures Black & Mild machine-rolled cigars. Last year, Altria also bought the Nat Sherman line of luxury cigar brands.

To be fair, Altria said in 2013 that it welcomed increased FDA regulations on cigars, but that was before the company bought Nat Sherman. In 2016, Altria sued the FDA after the agency tried to prevent the Black & Mild brand from describing itself as "mild."

Naturally, Diaz-Balart immediately received kudos from cigar manufacturers, including the trade group International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association (IPCPR), which represents premium-tobacco salespeople.

“IPCPR applauds Congressman Diaz-Balart for continuing to raise concerns over regulation of premium cigars," the group cheered. "We are also encouraged by the Director’s ongoing commitment to regulatory fairness and remain committed to engaging Congress and the Administration on this critical issue."

Likewise, the D.C. lobbying firm Cigar Rights of America — which purports to be a "grassroots" group of citizens that supports the right to smoke tobacco — praised Diaz-Balart as well.

"Messages conveyed such as that by Con. Diaz-Balart yesterday and over the course of the last several years have worked to tell the unique, artisan message of premium cigars, and recent actions by the administration and regulators have proven that this message is being heard," the group announced.

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