Capitol Alert

California lawmakers called out for taking tobacco money

What do Gov. Jerry Brown, Assemblyman Adam Gray and state Sen. Isadore Hall have in common? They’re Democrats among a slew of California lawmakers who have accepted money from tobacco companies in the last two years.

Campaign records show tobacco industry donors have given at least $1.6 million to state political campaign committees since the beginning of 2015. Now the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network is calling out elected officials and candidates who have received industry support since July 1, 2014.

“We need to continue to hold legislators’ and candidates’ feet to the fire for their relationships with the tobacco companies,” said Tim Gibbs, senior director of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network in California. “The tobacco companies, despite recent setbacks, are still committed to preventing policies from passing that would reduce smoking in any way.”

The network is the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society and part of the coalition behind a $2 tobacco tax on the November ballot. Proposition 56 would raise the tax to $2.87 per pack of 20 cigarettes, with equivalent $2 raises on other tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

Gibbs’ group first launched the campaign during the 2014 election cycle to draw attention to the industry’s influence in the Capitol. He gives the campaign partial credit for pushing the Legislature to pass a series of new tobacco regulations earlier this year.

Lawmakers raised the age to buy tobacco to 21 and passed a bill to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco products, which many hailed as the toughest tobacco laws in decades. With another fight on the horizon, Gibbs said the Cancer Action Network wants to continue to apply pressure on candidates and shine a light on their dealings with tobacco companies.

“The tobacco companies had an iron grip on the California Legislature for two decades,” Gibbs said. “There had been no significant tobacco legislation that would save lives in a meaningful way that had been passed since the mid-90s. There was so much tobacco money flowing through the Capitol with no accountability that any tobacco legislation was essentially dead on arrival.”

The Cancer Action Network is sending letters to legislators and candidates asking them to pledge to refuse tobacco funding. Gibbs said volunteers are also questioning politicians in their districts.

Tobacco companies, led by Philip Morris USA, its parent company Altria, and R.J. Reynolds, have donated directly to nearly four dozen current senators and Assembly members or candidates in the current legislative session, according to the Cancer Action Network’s tally. The network’s count does not include money given to outside spending committees to support or oppose candidates.

Many on the network’s list are Republican, although some Democrats – such as former lawmaker Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, who is running to reclaim his old Assembly seat, and state Sen. Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego – have also received industry support.

A spokeswoman for the tobacco-funded committee to oppose the $2 tax declined to comment.

Jim Miller of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna