SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In the Golden State, home to healthy living, progressive politics and one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation, cigarettes can seem like a relic of the past, barred long ago from restaurants, bars and even some city parks.
And yet within the walls of California’s high-domed capitol, tobacco companies continue to wield surprising power. After a recent loss on a slate of tobacco control bills headed to the governor’s desk, they are gearing up for a bigger test looming at the ballot this fall. With money to spend, they have threatened to sabotage a planned ballot measure to raise the cigarette tax.
The battles aren’t just here. Despite the tobacco industry’s tarnished public image, it is operating a powerful and massive influence machine in statehouses from Salt Lake City to Topeka. With a playbook crafted nearly 20 years ago, the tobacco firms use direct lobbying, third-party allies and “grassroots” advocacy campaigns to spread model legislation and mobilize smokers against proposed regulations and tax hikes across the country. And they are taking up the mantle to defend a burgeoning electronic cigarette market as well.
Today, tobacco companies maintain some of the most extensive state lobbying networks in the country, totaling hundreds of lobbyists. Altria Group Inc. and Reynolds American Inc., which control the vast majority of the American tobacco market, are among just 21 entities that had registered lobbyists in every state at one point from 2010 through 2014, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of lobbyist registrations collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
They’ve also given at least $63 million to state candidates, committees and ballot initiatives nationwide over the past five years.
Their chief opponents, the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, also have similarly broad lobbying networks, but the health associations have given hardly any money to state politicians.
With such extensive reach, tobacco companies have continued to fight off the simplest means of cutting smoking rates: higher taxes. Out of 24 states to propose higher cigarette taxes last year just eight passed increases, according to a tobacco industry group. And only Nevada, with a $1-per-pack hike, raised them by more than 50 cents. Health groups say incremental tax hikes of less than $1 are much less effective at cutting smoking rates because tobacco companies can easily counteract them with rebates and discounts.
E-cigarettes are the newest front in this multi-faceted war. While the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to regulate e-cigarettes, for now it remains up to states to impose any regulations or taxes on the emerging products. So far, e-cigarette taxes have passed in only four states, while proposals have been defeated in at least 21 others. The tobacco industry, which is increasing its share of the new market, has also won language in at least 19 states in recent years making it harder to regulate and tax e-cigarettes under existing anti-smoking laws.
David Sutton, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, said his firm is generally opposed to taxes on its products and becomes politically active where necessary. Reynolds declined to answer specific questions for this article, pointing instead to its website, which says the company engages in lobbying and makes lawful political contributions to protect the interests of its business.
“The tobacco companies never give up,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “They’re like the Borg,” the indomitable alien horde of “Star Trek” lore.