Tobacco firms flex muscles in Oregon

RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris delivered such a thumping to Oregon’s proposed cigarette-tax increase Tuesday that the sound could be heard all the way in Washington, D.C.

Some say the tobacco giants’ $12 million pounding of Measure 50, on top of victories in California and Missouri last year, should prompt Congress to rethink a pending federal plan to raise cigarette taxes for children’s health care.

Others say the Measure 50 drubbing shows that tobacco companies can have their way in ballot measure campaigns and that Oregon should find another way to pay for the Healthy Kids Program.

“I don’t think it bodes well for Healthy Kids funded by tobacco taxes,” said state Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem, who supported the tobacco-tax increase for children’s health care in the 2007 legislative session.

Several Measure 50 supporters said nothing could have countered the cigarette makers’ record-shattering television ad campaign.

“With that much money, you can tell people that the sun rises in the West and they’ll assume it’s true,” complained Mark Wiener, a Dem-ocratic political consultant.

“I think that they have demonstrated that they have a keen ability to buy elections,” said state Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis.

But wait a minute. Despite the string of tobacco company wins in Oregon, California and Missouri, a closer look reveals that they are the ones on the run.

“I think Oregon is an aberration,” said Bill Corr, the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. “If you look broadly, there’s no evidence that they are making a comeback. All the evidence points that their power is on the decline.”

In the past six years, 44 states have raised cigarette taxes, Corr said, and voters have approved eight of the past 12 state ballot measures to raise cigarette taxes. Oregon’s defeat of Measure 50 is among those four failures, although it was the most lopsided. The other three were much closer.

In 2006, as the tobacco companies defeated the California and Missouri measures, voters in Arizona and South Dakota voted to increase cigarette taxes. The same year, voters in Ohio, Nevada and Arizona enacted stiffer indoor smoking laws and rejected milder alternatives on the ballot supported by tobacco companies.

Although anti-tax forces are urging Congress to think again after the Oregon election, majorities in both chambers recently approved a federal cigarette tax increase for children’s health care, before President Bush vetoed the bill. And Corr said there’s strong support in Congress to make tobacco a regulated substance under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration.

“We have conservative Democrats from tobacco-producing states co-sponsoring the FDA legislation to regulate tobacco,” Corr said.

The courts also continue to weigh major decisions about tobacco.

Interestingly, someone in the opposite camp agreed it’s unwise to make too much of a trend out of the Oregon, California and Missouri results.

“The size of the victory (in Oregon) certainly indicated that our arguments and our effort resonated with the voters,” said John Singleton, the communications director of Reynolds America, parent of RJ Reynolds.

But each ballot measure campaign is different, so it’s unwise to suggest any clear trends, he said.

“Who knows? The next initiative is going to be a whole new set of circumstances.”

Singleton suggested that the sheer size of the $2.60-a-pack tax increase proposed in California played a part in that measure’s defeat.

Oregon’s tax was smaller, at 84.5 cents per pack, but it would have elevated the state’s tax to the third-highest in the country, tied with Washington.

“Once they get up into a certain high range, that may have some resonance with people, certainly with smokers,” Singleton said.

Some voters also are concerned about extracting too much money from smokers, who tend to be disproportionately poor and working class, he said.

Still, that won’t stop anti-tax forces from citing the Oregon results to fend off the pending congressional plan.

It’s “going to have problems now because it’s exactly what we defeated in Oregon,” said Russ Walker, the Keizer-based leader of FreedomWorks in Oregon, which opposes cigarette-tax increases.

“I think that should concern some politicians that think there’s a bottomless pit you can keep coming back to,” Walker said.