SACRAMENTO — When Assemblyman Isadore Hall shelved a bill last week that would have required most workplaces to be smoke-free in California, it was just a small example of the tobacco industry’s long reach into the California Legislature.
Hall, chairman of the Government Operations committee, killed the bill, SB 575, when the author, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, objected to an amendment that tobacco companies sought: an exemption for employer-owned businesses.
Hall, a Los Angeles Democrat, has received $7,800 in campaign contributions from tobacco companies.
Though the amount in campaign contributions from tobacco companies to Hall was a relative pittance, his relationship with lobbyists was probably the more important factor, said Tracy Westen, CEO and founder of the Center for Governmental Studies.
“Campaign contributions open the door, and once the door is open, it’s a full-court press,” Westen said. “And tobacco lobbyists present some of the most sophisticated arguments you’ll find.”
A report released Tuesday by the American Lung Association in California showed that large tobacco companies wielded their influence in subtle and blatant ways as they tried to maintain their grip on the state’s booming cigarette market.
Over the past decade, Big Tobacco — led by Philip Morris — spent nearly $100 million lobbying legislators and contributing to campaigns in California. A large chunk of that — $62 million — went into defeating Proposition 86 in 2006, a statewide initiative that would have imposed a $2.60 tax on each pack of cigarettes.
Tobacco spending, while significant, pales in comparison to the expenditures of the California Teachers’ Association, which threw $211.8 million into campaigns from 2000-2009, according to a report by the Fair Political Practices Commission. The California State Council of Service Employees spent $107.5 million, and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent $104.9 million.
The difference is that tobacco is protecting a single product, while teachers and unions have a varied slate of issues they pursue, Westen said.
“This is the most highly regulated product in terms of safety — we know more about its dangers than virtually any other product,” Westen said. “The more we know its dangers, the more they feel they have to spend to convince us we ought not to regulate or tax it.”
Philip Morris USA spokesman David Sutton declined to comment on the report.
Over the most recent two-year election cycle, from 2009-10, tobacco interests spent $9.3 million on lobbying and campaign contributions in California. Most of the recipients are Republicans — all 54 current legislators who have never taken money from tobacco interests are Democrats.
But tobacco companies know the value of winning over Democrats, who have wide majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
DeSaulnier, the author of the smoke-free workplace bill, which was approved in the Senate, said he was surprised when he found it in Hall’s committee, rather than the Labor committee, where it was originally headed.
“He asked for it,” said DeSaulnier, a former restaurant owner who helped write some of the state’s earliest local ordinances against smoking in the workplace as a Contra Costa County supervisor.
DeSaulnier said that he objected to Hall’s amendment because he has seen how larger businesses use the employer-owned exemption as a cover to skirt the law. He had already provided an exemption for tobacco shops.
“I thought that had taken care of that concern,” DeSaulnier said. “To be honest, I don’t know why he inserted that amendment.”
Hall did not respond to a request for an interview.
The main target for tobacco companies is the perennial effort to raise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. Increasing taxes — which is paid for with a higher price tag on cigarettes — reduces consumption and prevents children from starting to smoke, said Paul Knepprath, vice president of advocacy and health initiatives for the American Lung Association in California.
“So they spend heavily to defeat any increases in the tobacco tax,” he said. “They know that California is the No. 1 consumer market for cigarettes in the country. They know we have the ability to set the standard for tobacco policies that reduce consumption and smoking. So, they know it’s important to protect their interests.”
In 2009, as the Legislature considered a cigarette tax increase in budget talks, the tobacco industry spent $750,000 in lobbying expenses in the second quarter alone, from April through June.
It is all being done with the expectation that their interests are covered in the Capitol, said Knepprath.
“The reality is that in politics and in public policy, money talks,” Knepprath said.
“If it didn’t, Big Tobacco would not be spending the way they do to influence the legislative process.”
Philip Morris was also a big player in the voter-approved Proposition 26 ballot initiative campaign last fall, contributing $1.75 million to the measure. It required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature on any attempt to raise fees.
Why was tobacco interested? Perhaps to head off a movement among a number of cities, including San Francisco, to adopt so-called cigarette mitigation fees.
Those fees would have provided revenue to clean up after cigarette butts, which advocates say are proven toxic pollutants.
But they would have resulted in higher prices for cigarettes and reduced smoking — taboo for tobacco companies.
By Steven Harmon