Big Tobacco's big bucks stay out of tax fight
The tobacco industry is making history in Washington state by not spending prodigiously to defeat Initiative 773, the measure on Tuesday's ballot to add a 60-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes.
The industry's decision to withhold money in a cigarette-tax ballot battle is unprecedented, anti-smoking forces say. Big Tobacco's strategy could have significant repercussions, they add, because if the industry isn't going to put up a fight, other revenue-hungry states may introduce similar ballot measures.
Recently filed campaign-spending documents with the Public Disclosure Commission show that Initiative 773's backers have raised $1.4 million, about nine times as much as opponents. And in a late media buy, backers have poured more than $400,000 into a barrage of TV ads.
The money difference is striking considering that in 1998 in California, the tobacco industry contributed about $30 million, about three times as much as proponents. California's Proposition 10, to increase the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack, passed by less than 1 percent.
The lopsided expenditures in that fight were consistent with spending patterns for similar measures in other states, including Oregon (1996); Arizona (1994); Colorado (1994); Massachusetts (1992); and Montana (1990). Voting outcomes were mixed.
In Washington, however, the tobacco industry's big-spending pattern has ended, or at least taken a holiday.
Spokespersons for the industry had little to say.
"We're not going to discuss the rationale behind the amount of money we've spent to oppose this initiative or get into a discussion comparing this initiative to others in terms of spending," said Brendan McCormick, spokesman for Philip Morris, which has spent a little more than $96,000 in campaign contributions and independent expenditures, according to disclosure records.
McCormick did take a shot at initiative backers, noting that it's "worth keeping in mind that there are businesses on both sides" of the campaign, referring to the HMOs and anti-tobacco organizations funding the measure.
If passed, the measure would make the cigarette tax in Washington the nation's highest, at $1.425 per pack.
It would generate an additional $130 million a year for the next seven years, according to forecasters with the state Revenue Department.
The bulk of the new money would make room for more enrollees under the state's Basic Health Plan to provide health-care services for low-income children and adults.
About 10 percent would go to prevent tobacco use and pay for other programs to improve the health of low-income people.
Frank Greer, a political consultant and media strategist hired by the pro I-773 campaign, suspects the reason the tobacco companies have not played a bigger role is because the measure's backers demonstrated early on that "they (Big Tobacco) could pay a heavy price for being involved."
Specifically, Greer cited newspaper stories that exposed Philip Morris' alleged surreptitious involvement in writing the state voter pamphlet's anti-initiative statements. I-773 backers have called attention to those stories.
Greer also noted that he was hired to help Proposition 10 backers in California, and he did so by focusing attention on Big Tobacco's financial contributions. Greer said he had every intention of doing the same in Washington state â€” and that the tobacco industry knew it.
"I think we have significantly scared them off," Greer said.
Referring to the industry's new behavior, Kathy Harty, who works with the SmokeLess States Project, an anti-tobacco group funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said: "If they (the tobacco industry) do this in Washington, there are going to be a lot of other states that might take a strong look at it. I know several states right now that would jump on this if they saw that they weren't going to get any opposition."
The Washington State Hospital Association got a $250,000 grant from Harty's organization and combined that with a $200,000 grant from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids to buy ads in support of the initiative.
The association is spending $401,725 to run a 30-second TV ad on major stations in the Seattle/Tacoma and Spokane markets. The ads, which will be repeated up to 700 times, started running Oct. 22 and will continue through Monday.
The ads deliberately make no explicit mention of the initiative, because the foundation cannot legally lobby. But the ad's educational message â€” "tobacco is killing our kids" â€” is clearly aimed at influencing voters to support the measure.