State Department sees no conflict in tobacco donation. Treaty Room suite features tobacco motif
Washington — Tobacco diplomacy is at work at the State Department. A group called the Tobacco Heritage Committee recently announced a $1.2 million contribution to a $2 million redesign of a suite of formal rooms in the State Department decorated with tobacco motifs. The seven-room suite includes an elliptical Treaty Room where over 350 treaties and international agreements are signed yearly. Clement T. Conger, curator of the diplomatic reception rooms, describes the Treaty Room as ``one of the most important rooms in America,'' where secretaries of state receive foreign chiefs of state, heads of government, and foreign ministers.
Seven pairs of carved tobacco leaves, seed pods, and blossoms trim the lower vertical moldings of the Treaty Room and the doorways of the antechambers, while similar motifs appear on diplomatic-reception porcelain dishes and vases, and on a vast, mauve carpet in the Ben Franklin state dining room. The Treaty Room bookcases also hold a display of historic Indian peace pipes, a gold peace-pipe medal, and a ceremonial peace-pipe bag.
Mr. Conger said that the curator's department had planned to use several of the crops of America in designs as it had in the Franklin state dining room rug, and to display some historic peace-pipe art. ``But when the pledge came from the tobacco companies, we decided as a reward to them we would put in considerably more tobacco. . . .'' The Tobacco Heritage Committee has already given $600,000 for the redecoration project and is pledged to pay another $600,000.
The Tobacco Heritage Committee, whose spokesman said it had been formed for this occasion, includes seven major tobacco companies: Philip Morris Inc., R. J. Reynolds, United States Tobacco Company, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, Lorillard Inc., the American Tobacco Company, and Liggett & Meyers Tobacco Company.
Conger, who also chairs the State Department's fine arts committee, was asked during a press tour Monday whether he saw any conflict in decorating the State Department Treaty Suite with tobacco motifs, inasmuch as the US surgeon general has stated that smoking is hazardous to health and designated that specific health warnings be printed on all cigarette packages. ``None whatever,'' he said. ``I mean, people are going to smoke, regardless, as you know. And that has nothing to do with our situation. We're impartial.''
Nancy Beck, a spokeswoman for the State Department, said yesterday that the department's managerial and administrative offices had reviewed questions raised by the story and that its legal department had checked on ``conflict of interest.'' She said, ``There is no conflict of interest nor any commercialization of donations in this situation, because no person or organization that contributes to the project of the department's fine arts committee gets anything in return other than the honor and the satisfaction of having contributed to a worthy enterprise.''
But John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, sharply disagrees. ``It would be bad enough if they just took the money, but when they agree to display the products on the walls of the State Department, it's obscene. And it would be a supreme irony if in that Treaty Room they sign an international treaty to control drug abuse.''
Mr. Banzhaf suggests that such tobacco symbolism at the State Department in view of administration drug policies is ``black comedy'':
``At a time when the President has declared war on drugs, it's nothing short of obscene that the State Department is accepting money and erecting memorials to the people who push the most deadly and addictive drug in the country,'' Banzhaf says. ``Tobacco kills at least 10 times as many people as all the illicit drugs combined and is more addictive than any illicit drug. Putting up a tobacco leaf is worse in my mind than putting up a [heroin] cooking spoon or a vial of cocaine.''
Conger points out that no government funds have been used in the extensive redecoration of the State Department's 33-room diplomatic area at a cost of $15 million to $16 million over the last 25 years. Private citizens, foundations, and companies such as General Motors and Sara Lee have contributed to the project.
At one point during the press tour, conducted by Conger and the architect of the Treaty Suite, Allan Greenberg, Conger said, ``How thrilled we are at the wonderful financial support which has come to us from the seven members of the [Tobacco] Institute, without which we could not have paid our bills here.'' He then introduced Tobacco Institute chairman Horace Kornegay, who is also the coordinator of the Tobacco Heritage Committee. Mr. Kornegay talked of the tobacco industry's pride in being part of the historic suite and said, ``It takes a lot of different things to make worthwhile matters occur, and one of them is money.''
Conger told Kornegay that the rooms never could have been done at this time ``without your generous support,'' and pointed to a full-color brochure on the Treaty Room with a State Department logo but published by the Tobacco Heritage Committee and filled with tobacco history. It included this statement: ``We feel it is most appropriate that the Secretary of State is able to receive his visitors and that agreements between the United States and other nations may be signed amidst decorative details and memorabilia of the commodity [tobacco] which has major significance and importance in the diplomatic, commercial, and agricultural history of our country.''
A spokesman for Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the tobacco motifs might have been influenced by the historical use of tobacco leaf and flower designs on the column capitals of the US Capitol.
There are also reports this week that the heads of the congressional foreign relations committees have raised questions over the possibility of conflict of interest and sources of funding on an official home for the secretary of state proposed by current Secretary George P. Shultz. Secretary Shultz has proposed that the residence, for future holders of the office, be funded privately.