Dan Morain

Dan Morain: A striking shift in accepting tobacco money

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a $115 million anti-tobacco ad campaign last week, and CVS announced it would halt tobacco sales in its pharmacies, at no small cost to its bottom line.

But in the Capitol of the state where the anti-smoking crusade began, tobacco is creeping back, especially among Democrats who no longer shun the industry’s campaign money.

Gov. Jerry Brown took $27,000 in tobacco money for his campaign this year, and $26,000 last year, breaking with Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis and Pete Wilson, who had turned down money from cigarette manufacturers.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who is running for state controller, accepted $61,000 during the past two years from Altria and R.J. Reynolds, the nation’s two largest tobacco companies, and $96,300 since he first ran for office in 2008.

Most Democratic legislators still refuse tobacco money. But others took $203,100 directly into their campaign accounts last year, up from $81,200 in 2012, and more by far than in any year since voter-imposed contribution limits took hold in 2003.

For the first time in years, tobacco companies gave roughly equal amounts to Democrats and Republicans, $228,700 to Republican officeholders, compared with the Democrats’ $203,100.

What’s striking is the shift. Especially in California, Democrats led efforts to curb tobacco use and sought to capitalize in campaigns on Republicans’ general support for tobacco industry positions.

“Tobacco is in it for the long haul,” said Terry Friedman, who was the Democratic assemblyman from Los Angeles who pushed through the landmark ban 20 years ago on smoking in bars, restaurants and other indoor workplaces. “They’re not giving money to foster good government. They’re giving money to protect their interests.”

Maybe, the issue has to do with us. In a political system awash in campaign money, perhaps voters have become inured to tobacco industry money.

Campaign consultants tell me the public views virtually all campaign money as tainted. There is little difference between oil money and Koch-brother money or money from Philip Morris, or so the reasoning goes

There is evidence for that view. In the special election for a Los Angeles-area Assembly seat last fall, a labor-funded candidate, Andra Hoffman, attacked another Democrat, Matt Dababneh, who had been the beneficiary of a California Chamber of Commerce expenditure.

“Backed by: Big oil … Big Tobacco … Big Insurance,” Hoffman’s mailer said.

Hoffman finished far back in the pack of candidates. Bababneh won the seat. The attack over money from oil, insurance and tobacco “didn’t seem to move the dial,” said Marty Wilson, who oversees the chamber’s campaign efforts.

Politicians insist they are perfectly capable of taking campaign money and voting against their donors’ interests, though from what I’ve seen, such independence is a rarity.

“Like the Catholic Church, he will take the sinner’s money to do God’s work,” said Pérez’s campaign strategist, Doug Herman.

Pérez is not unlike many legislative leaders, who take money from whatever legal source they can tap, though Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg doesn’t accept tobacco money.

Pérez’s aides can cite many votes he has cast that run counter to tobacco industry interests. But many anti-tobacco bills die in committees and never reach the floor where politicians would have to vote up or down.

The big issue remains a tobacco tax increase. In our high-tax state, the tobacco tax of 87 cents per pack ranks 33rd, below such low-tax states as Arizona, where smokers pay $2 per pack, Texas, where smokers pay $1.41, and Oklahoma’s $1.03 per pack. The California Legislature has not raised the tobacco tax in two decades, and that was a two-penny hike to fund breast cancer research.

In California, smoking prevalence remains low, 12.7 percent of the population, thanks no doubt to decades-long anti-smoking efforts. The U.S. surgeon general recently reported that smoking remains relatively low nationally at 18 percent, down from 42 percent in 1965.

But the surgeon general also noted that youths – the most prized market – are using different tobacco products, particularly electronic cigarettes. The percentage of teenagers who vape e-cigarettes doubled between 2011 and 2012. The step is short from e-cigarettes to cigarettes. Indeed, the same companies that market e-cigarettes in all sorts of fun flavors also sell Camels and Marlboros.

Sen. Ellen Corbett, an East Bay Democrat, is carrying Senate Bill 648 to ban the use of electronic cigarettes in indoor workplaces, just as California prohibits smoking in bars, restaurants and other places of employment.

Corbett pushed her bill out of the Senate with the bare 21-vote majority. But the bill stalled last year in the industry-friendly Assembly Governmental Organization Committee, controlled by Democrats. Corbett’s staff could not identify a single committee member of either party willing to support e-cigarette restrictions.

How quickly they forget.

This coming April will mark the 20th anniversary of the congressional hearing in which Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, called the chief executive officers of the major tobacco companies before his oversight committee.

“The truth is that cigarettes are the single most dangerous consumer product ever sold,” Waxman said in an opening statement worth remembering.

At the time, he noted, almost a half-million Americans died every year as a result of tobacco. The number has remained relatively constant and is, as Waxman had said, “an astounding, almost incomprehensible statistic.”

“Imagine our nation’s outrage if two fully loaded jumbo jets crashed each day, killing all aboard,” said Waxman, who recently announced he would be retiring at the end of this term. “Yet that is the same number of Americans that cigarettes kill every 24 hours.”

Ron Wyden, now a U.S. senator from Oregon, put the question to the chief executive officers: “I’d like to just go down the row, whether each of you believes that nicotine is not addictive. I heard virtually all of you touch on it. Yes or no, do you believe nicotine is not addictive?”

“I believe nicotine is not addictive” they answered.

In California at the time, public health officials in the tobacco control unit of the state health department took the footage of men in suits lying about the addictive nature of nicotine, and turned it into a powerful commercial that aired statewide.

“Do they think we’re stupid?” the narrator asks.

Maybe not stupid. But perhaps our attention span is limited.