At least a handful of powerful U.S. senators have taken a hard line on anti-tobacco policies while investing in companies that manufacture products designed to help people quit smoking, raising potential conflict of interest questions.

According to a joint investigation by Scribe and the Washington Guardian, published Monday in the Washington Times, top Senate Democrats who have pushed policies that fund anti-tobacco measures have money invested in pharmaceutical companies that manufacture tobacco cessation products such as Nicorette.

Over the past four years as he repeatedly pressed for federal funding to stop smoking, [Iowa Democratic Senator Tom] Harkin has owned between $50,001 and $100,000 in stock in health products maker Johnson & Johnson, which makes the popular anti-smoking product Nicorette. Senate disclosure forms give ranges instead of exact amounts.

He’s hardly alone. A half-dozen senators who have been among the most vocal advocates for federal funding for smoking cessation — including Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois — have direct or indirect investments in companies that make anti-tobacco products.

The conflicts, spelled out in more detail in the Times, underscore the need for measures to combat the use of public office for personal financial gain.

“A lot of times it’s the old moniker, ‘follow the money,’” said Peter Schweizer, author of the book “Throw Them All Out” that last year prompted the debate over stopping Congress from engaging in insider trading. “It just seemed to me that we’re very, very quick to question the profit motives of corporations and businesses, but not to view those in public service with the same sense of skepticism.”

Even when members of Congress are acting on behalf of their constituencies, they still can create the appearance of acting in their own self-interest, said Angela Canterbury, the director of public policy at the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight. “The fear is that they will make policy decisions and cast their votes based upon their financial interest,” she said.

In April, President Obama signed into law the Stock Act, which prevents lawmakers from using insider information gained from government duties for personal financial gain. But just one month later, senators were debating anew the smoking-cessation funding, including several who began the year with investments that could be impacted by the outcome.

Despite the presence of such conflicts in both houses of Congress, some congressional leaders have been reluctant to maintain substantial scrutiny on their colleagues’ conduct.

As Scribe reported last week, the Office of Congressional Ethics, which serves as a watchdog in the House of Representatives, will be denied a quorum at the end of the year, effectively preventing it from functioning. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have not been proactive in ensuring its continued operation.

(Photo credit: EPA/Jonathan Drake)