Calm Before Tobacco Storm in Sacramento

Over the past couple of decades, when California legislators proposed new tobacco taxes or other regulations dealing with the industry, reaction has been swift and well heeled. The tobacco industry has spent early, often and generously to combat threats to business.

Facing four challenges this session in the California Legislature, the tobacco industry has been conspicuously absent from the debate so far. But Sacramento veterans don’t expect it to last.

“I think they’re trying to figure out what’s the strategy,” said Janet Chin, director of communications for state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), author of one of the four bills.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that there’s going to be a big fight. We haven’t heard anything yet. I think we’ll start to identify the opposition and the strategy when we have the first informational hearing.”

Hearings have not been scheduled for any of the four bills:

  • SB 591, by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), would add an additional $2 tax to each cigarette pack to discourage Californians from smoking and to raise revenue to be used in anti-smoking efforts;
  • SB 151, by Hernandez, would raise the legal minimum smoking age in California from 18 to 21 in an effort to stem tobacco use among teenagers;
  • SB 140, by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would restrict electronic-cigarette smoking in workplaces, restaurants and other public places and increase penalties for selling e-cigarettes to minors; and
  • AB 768, by Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), would prohibit the use of all tobacco products — including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes — at all baseball venues in California to protect the health of players and to set an example for children.

None of the four California legislators have heard any formal opposition to their bills yet.

Tobacco Industry Opposes Three, Mum on One

David Sutton — a spokesperson for Altria in Virginia, parent company of Philip Morris USA — said his company opposes the California tax proposal because “tobacco products are already very heavily taxed.”

In an email, Sutton wrote that Altria’s tobacco operating companies oppose tobacco product excise tax increases that:

  • Are unfair to adult tobacco consumers;
  • Create additional incentives for contraband and counterfeit tobacco product trafficking;
  • Harm states by increasing incentives for adult tobacco consumers to buy tobacco products through lower tax or untaxed venues;
  • Are costly to legitimate businesses, including retailers and wholesalers; and
  • Do little to solve systemic state budget problems and can lead to less stability in the states’ finances.  

Sutton said Altria opposes bills seeking to raise the legal smoking age and restricting e-cigarettes in workplaces and public venues because states should back off until federal lawmakers and regulators weigh in on the issues.

“Increasing the age-of-purchase for tobacco products is a complex issue and Congress has established a thoughtful process to better understand it,” Sutton wrote. “We believe states and localities should defer to this process and allow Congress the opportunity to think through this issue further before enacting different minimum age laws.”

Sutton added, “Legislatures should also allow regulators to assess the appropriate scope of regulations for e-vapor products and give the FDA an opportunity to implement Congress’ mandate to develop and implement a national tobacco policy.”

Sutton had no comment on Thurmond’s bill prohibiting tobacco products in baseball parks.

Variety May Contribute to Slow Response

When faced with single bills or ballot initiatives in California over the past couple decades — and there have been several challenging tobacco industry interests — opposition has generally come together quickly with focused messaging.

The fact that four disparate bills are in the Legislature at the same time — with one of them carrying a promise to transform into a statewide ballot initiative if it fails in the Legislature — may contribute to the early absence of any active opposition.

Veterans of Sacramento tobacco battles do not take the tobacco industry’s slow response to these bills as a sign of retreat or defeat.

“Honestly, I’m not surprised we haven’t heard anything,” said Tim Gibbs, senior director of government relations for American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “A lot of what they do they don’t do publicly. Names never appear on analyses. They kind of do this all in the shadows. Tobacco companies are pariahs. Even lobbyists working these bills don’t come out publicly until they have to,” Gibbs said.

Tax Likely To Generate Most Opposition

Pan’s bill seeking an additional $2 tax on each pack of cigarettes sold in California is likely to generate the most significant opposition this session.

Increasing the tax on cigarettes has failed nine times in the past 13 years in California — seven times in the Legislature and twice on statewide ballot initiatives.

California, which hasn’t raised taxes on tobacco since 1988, has one of the lowest tax levies on cigarettes in the country. Tobacco taxes are higher in 32 other states. Adding $2 per pack would move California to eighth in the nation.

The current state tax on a pack of cigarettes is 87 cents. Federal taxes add $1.01 per pack. Adding $2 would move the price for a pack of cigarettes to about $8 — roughly half of that ($4) in taxes.

Supporters of the bill — including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association in California, the California Medical Association and the California Hospital Association — said they’ll take the proposal directly to voters in a statewide initiative if the bill fails in the Legislature.

‘Snuff Tobacco Money Out of California Politics’

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network launched a campaign last summer urging California legislators to refuse tobacco industry campaign contributions. So far, 25 have signed on to “Snuff Tobacco Money Out of California Politics,” Gibbs said.

In elections last fall, nine California legislators accepted tobacco money, six of them on Nov. 3, the day before the election, according to Gibbs.

“This is the first time we’ve done this — asked candidates not to take tobacco money, so we don’t really have anything to measure this against,” Gibbs said. “The fact that only nine accepted money and six of them on the day before the election, I think shows there is a public price to pay for accepting tobacco money.”

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