Thomas Bliley Jr., tobacco ally who disclosed industry deceit, dies at 91

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

The death was announced by Bliley’s Funeral Homes, a Richmond-based business run by Mr. Bliley’s family. No cause was given.

During two decades in Congress, from 1981 to 2001, Mr. Bliley built an image as an old-style presence, sporting his trademark bow ties, displaying courtly manners and seeking ways to work with Democrats. Yet he stood firm as an unwavering defender of Big Tobacco, a significant economic force in his district and a reliable campaign contributor.

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

When Mr. Bliley gained the chairmanship of the House’s subcommittee on health and environment in 1995, one of his first acts was to lift a smoking ban — a particular jab at colleague Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), an ardent foe of the tobacco industry. Mr. Bliley puffed away on his pipe.

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

Mr. Bliley and his committee were immersed in details for the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1996, which opened up competition in phone services and cable television. “I’m interested in breaking up monopolies,” Mr. Bliley said even as critics said some aspects of the changes weakened competition.

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

In Minnesota, meanwhile, the state’s attorney general, Hubert H. Humphrey III, and Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Minnesota were deep into a lawsuit against tobacco companies seeking to recover costs from smoking-related illnesses. Humphrey had demanded a huge trove of documents from the companies. The papers were part of the files at the tobacco company Liggett & Myers, which broke ranks with the industry by settling health-related claims and waiving attorney-client privileges to allow disclosure.

No one predicted Mr. Bliley’s next moves. In 1997, he subpoenaed tobacco companies for the release of documents believed exempt from attorney-client confidentiality.

“If the tobacco industry engaged in criminal or fraudulent activities, then Congress has a right, a duty, to know before enacting legislation granting the industry any form of immunity against lawsuits,” Mr. Bliley said.

Then, in a surprise disclosure, the cache of 864 documents was posted to the Commerce Committee’s website in December 1997.

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

A look inside the archive that exposed Big Tobacco

Some longtime tobacco industry allies denounced Mr. Bliley as a turncoat. Instead, his plan was to gain leverage in future settlement talks. Mr. Bliley was reportedly angered by being shut out by Philip Morris during discussions with lawmakers over a proposed settlement with tobacco companies to pay $368.5 billion to states over 25 years.

Releasing the documents, Mr. Bliley’s aides said, gave him more credibility with anti-tobacco groups and handed him influence during the continued negotiations with Big Tobacco as the proposed settlement plan stalled.

“If only Nixon could go to China, maybe only Tom Bliley can get the tobacco industry to make the compromises that produce a congressional deal,” a University of Virginia government professor, Larry Sabato, told The Washington Post at the time.

A wide-ranging deal in 1998, called the Master Settlement Agreement, was reached between 46 states and four tobacco companies, including Philip Morris. The agreement ended most tobacco advertising, blocked tobacco industry outreach to young people and produced an annual stream of billions of dollars to the states, including Virginia. (Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi and Texas reached separate settlements with the tobacco industry.)

“Frankly I was shocked by what I read” in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. documents on efforts to target teenager smokers, Mr. Bliley told tobacco executives at a Capitol Hill hearing. The disclosures, 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 ruled that tobacco companies violated civil racketeering laws by conspiring to deceive the public about the health dangers. She ordered the companies to remove marketing tags such as “low tar” and “mild,” but said previous court decisions prevented additional fines.

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

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

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

Mr. Bliley switched to the Republican Party for his successful House run in 1980. In Congress, he was among the early advocates to honor civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday, which was signed into law in 1983.

In 2000, Mr. Bliley joined with Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) to get approval for a memorial to 14 Black soldiers fighting for the Union in a September 1864 battle at New Market Heights. Mr. Bliley also helped lobby for changes in Richmond city government that opened the way for mayoral elections in 2004 won by former governor Doug Wilder.

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

While adept at the political jockeying in Congress, Mr. Bliley kept a lower profile off Capitol Hill. He generally kept his comments to journalists short and direct. A devout Roman Catholic, he said that being a guest on the Sunday political talk shows interfered with attending Mass. An aide once asked about whether he would consider going on ABC’s late-evening broadcast “Nightline.”

“You know,” he replied, “I go to bed well before they tape.”

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