Virginia-based tobacco giant on track to be the biggest spender in Colorado history

Big Tobacco may beat out the casino industry for a dubious distinction: biggest spender on a ballot measure in Colorado’s history.

Supporters of Amendment 72, an initiative that would increase Colorado’s tobacco tax by 108 percent, held a conference this morning to highlight their critics’ astronomical spending. Outside the downtown Tabor Center, which is where the No on Amendment 72 campaign is headquartered, representatives from the American Lung Association, the American Heart Association and the Tobacco-Free Colorado campaign called on Colorado voters to resist the Big Tobacco-backed messages.

According to filings with the Secretary of State, the issue committee No on 72 has spent $17.4 million on mailers, television and digital ads, polling and research. The same filings show that it is funded almost exclusively by Altria Client Services LLC, the tobacco behemoth that owns Philip Morris and has a long history of political activity.

No on 72’s top competitor for biggest campaign war chest is Don’t Turn Racetracks into Casinos, a similar committee that in 2014 spent just under $20 million in a successful effort to keep casino gambling out of Colorado horse tracks.

Altria is based in Virginia and, according to the Los Angeles Times and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, has spent $86 million this election cycle on ballot issues in Colorado, North Dakota and California. The company is no stranger to politics. According to the Center for Public Integrity, it spent $101 million on lobbying between 1998 and 2004, making it the second most active organization in the country at the time.

The advertisements No on 72 created depict the measure as a “blank check” in the Colorado Constitution, implying that how tobacco tax revenue will be spent is unclear. 

Denver’s Channel 9 News fact-checked that suggestion and declared it “Misleading.” The official state voter guide explains that the revenue would go to grant programs for various public health initiatives.

No on Amendment 72 protested that voters still don’t know what the money would pay for since the proposal does not establish who would receive the grants. But as 9 News’ Brandon Rittiman put it, “That’s just how grants work.” When a grant program is created, applicants prove their merit to receive funds, as opposed to being baked into the system from the outset.

At this morning’s event, Amendment 72 advocates made a point of noting that Altria representatives have, in the not-too-distant past, testified under oath that tobacco is not addictive.

“Just over 10 years ago, Big Tobacco was indicted for violating civil racketeering laws in their intentional marketing to children,” said Jodi Radke, Rocky Mountain Director at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “Not much has changed since then.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the committee with the current record for campaign expenditures in Colorado. 

Photo Credit: Anne Pogoriler, Onsight Public Affairs