Soapbox

California legislators must break tobacco money addiction

Little League baseball players stand with Assemblyman Tony Thurmond at Sacramento’s Roosevelt Park in February to support a bill to ban tobacco use at every baseball venue in California.
Little League baseball players stand with Assemblyman Tony Thurmond at Sacramento’s Roosevelt Park in February to support a bill to ban tobacco use at every baseball venue in California. rpench@sacbee.com

The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network is disappointed, but not surprised, to learn money is pouring in from the tobacco industry to influence California politicians and fund political action committees.

In most cases, the contributions were the maximum allowed by law. Our nonprofit cancer group is calling on elected officials and PACs to stop the cycle of addiction and death by returning dirty tobacco money.

Philip Morris USA Inc. and its affiliates, including Altria, report making more than a dozen contributions totaling $175,700 in just the first quarter of 2015. State Assembly members Travis Allen, Catharine Baker, Rocky Chávez and Don Wagner, and state Sens. Isadore Hall, Mike Morrell and Sharon Runner all took $3,900 or more.

Several political action committees accepted tobacco money, including JobsPAC. During the last election cycle, the tobacco industry was the single biggest contributor to JobsPAC.

As part of our “Snuff Tobacco Money out of California Politics” campaign launched last year, we challenged politicians to refrain from accepting tobacco money and return to an agenda that promotes public health.

Money pouring into pocketbooks of politicians can mean only one thing: Tobacco lobbyists are nervous. Indeed, there is a high-profile package of tobacco control bills currently under consideration by the Legislature. Unfortunately, a committee where the tobacco industry has undue influence has already drastically weakened a bill that would ban tobacco use in baseball stadiums throughout the state.

Other bills in play include ones to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack; improve Medi-Cal to help low-income smokers quit; increase the minimum age to buy tobacco products to from 18 to 21; and to regulate e-cigarettes like other tobacco products.

Together, the bills mark a coordinated effort to fight, prevent and treat tobacco and nicotine addiction, which UC San Francisco researchers say cost California nearly $23 billion a year in direct health care costs and indirect costs from lost productivity due to illness and premature deaths. In 2014 alone, more than 40,000 Californians died from tobacco-related diseases.

Tobacco companies have spent $63 million on campaign contributions and lobbying in California in the last five years. In that time, they have successfully stymied every significant legislative effort that would have helped people quit smoking, prevented youths from starting or protected people from secondhand smoke.

The entire business model of the tobacco industry depends on addicting youths and low-income people to products, which very well may kill them. There is no other industry that inflicts so much damage. Smoking kills more people in the United States than alcohol, car accidents, suicides, AIDS, homicides and illegal drugs combined.

Big Tobacco’s constant quest to hook young and low-income consumers to cigarettes is just like its pursuit to hook politicians to tobacco money. Tell your state legislators to just say no.

Jim Knox is vice president of government relations for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the society’s nonpartisan advocacy affiliate.

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