Study: Tobacco money sways California politics

(July 20, 2011)

sacramento-bee

July 20, 2011

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The tobacco industry spent $9.3 million over the past two years to fight cigarette taxes, support candidates and influence politics in California, an anti-smoking group said in a report issued Tuesday.

The report by the American Lung Association in California said political spending by tobacco interests over the past decade totaled almost $100 million, with cigarette maker Philip Morris USA Inc. accounting for more than half the total.

Altria Group Inc., corporate parent of Philip Morris, declined to comment.

The report is the latest by the association documenting political spending by the tobacco industry, which spikes when cigarette taxes or tobacco regulations are in play at the Capitol or at the ballot box.

Researchers found that tobacco companies and distributors contributed more than $6.5 million to political committees and candidates for the Legislature and statewide office in 2009 and 2010. Most of that went to two tax-related ballot initiatives.

Another $2.7 million went for lobbying on legislation.

"Big tobacco continues to use its vast financial resources for campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures to oppose bills and ballot initiatives that would benefit public health by reducing tobacco use," said Jane Warner, president and chief executive of the state lung association, in a prepared statement.

The group says smoking rates continue to drop in California, which contributes to better health and lower medical expenses, but the tobacco industry spends heavily to fight efforts that could cut smoking even more.

It doesn't always work, though.

About 60 percent of all industry contributions during the two-year period - $3.85 million, all from Philip Morris - went to political committees that were trying to influence the results of two 2010 ballot measures. The tobacco company gave money to oppose Proposition 25, which changed the vote needed to pass a state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority; and to support Proposition 26, which classified many fees as taxes so that a two-thirds majority vote is needed to change them.

Voters approved both measures.

About half of all legislators received contributions from one of three tobacco companies or a group that represents tobacco distributors in California, with 21 of them accepting at least $10,000. Both major party candidates for governor in 2010 also received contributions, with $2,500 for Democrat Jerry Brown and $25,900 for Republican Meg Whitman.

Spending on campaigns during 2009-2010 was dwarfed by the 2005-2006 election cycle, when tobacco interests spent $66.6 million, largely to defeat Proposition 86, a 2006 ballot measure that would have boosted the California tobacco tax by $2.60 a pack.

Another ballot measure in 2012 may also draw tobacco spending. A proposal to raise the tobacco tax by $1 a pack to finance smoking prevention efforts and research on cancer and other smoking-linked illnesses will go to the voters in February or June.