Homestretch: Colorado’s tobacco tax

Fried Dough, Creative Commons, Flickr

If you could characterize only one Colorado election contest as a David vs. Goliath matchup, you would have to choose Amendment 72.

The measure would revise the state constitution to add a tax of $1.75 per pack of 20 cigarettes, to be diverted to public health programs. In support are doctors, hospitals and public health advocates seeking to limit smoking, with a campaign war chest of about $2.1 million. Opposing the measure is one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, which has so far spent over eight times that.

Who is Goliath, and what is he up to?

The Richmond, Virginia-based tobacco giant Altria Client Services, LLC, formerly Philip Morris, has contributed about $17.5 million to a group called No on 72 – No Blank Checks in the Constitution. Most of it — about $16.28 million — was in cash, but it also gave $1.22 million in “in-kind” donations, meaning staff time and other non-monetary gifts.

Altria has held a spot on Fortune magazine’s 500 largest companies for 22 years, vacillating between #23 in 2007 to #179 in 2015. The holding company is the parent of Philip Morris USA, which represents half the country’s tobacco market share. It made about $5.2 billion in profits last year.

In 2003, what was then Philip Morris underwent a comprehensive rebranding that included a new name. Linguist Steven Pinker has  suggested that they chose the name Altria because it sounds like the word “altruism”, and Philip Morris had a negative, carcinogenic image to get rid of.

No on 72 has spent at least $14 million on polling, research, mailers, consultants and digital and television advertising as of the most recent campaign finance filing deadline. For scale, that’s more that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spent on advertising in Colorado combined. Few Colorado residents could have avoided the messages about “blank checks in the constitution” broadcast from television and computer screens across the state.

Almost all of the campaign’s money is from Altria, although McLane Company, which supplies food to convenience stores and chain restaurants, donated $20,000 in October.

None of the advertisements put out by the opposition mention cigarettes or tobacco. Instead, they suggest that the money raised from an increased tobacco tax is a “blank check in the Colorado constitution” that unnamed “special interests” will use for “pet programs”.

In September, 9News’ Brandon Rittiman examined two of the ads and declared them as “Misleading” and “Speculation”. He also identified a certain “pot-and-kettle” quality to the ads, which suggest that the public health programs could be exploited by “special interests” — and are funded by a company that would lose financially if the amendment passes.

No on 72 did not respond to multiple calls for comment in time for this story’s deadline.

Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at CU Boulder’s journalism school, said the campaign’s choice of message is strategically wise. The Colorado electorate has generally accepted that smoking is harmful to public health, so tobacco tax opponents have to focus on an aspect of the amendment that is not related to tobacco.

“No on 72 is trying to frame this around procedure because if they can say, ‘We’re not even trying to argue that there’s not a public health reason for doing this, but we’re very concerned about the murkiness of the constitution,’ that’s their best argument to make,” Skewes said.

A few other factors beyond their opponents’ wealth put the amendment’s supporters at a disadvantage, Skewes told The Independent.

First, “no” feels safer for undecided voters. If a person is on the fence about a measure like Amendment 72 and doesn’t have the motivation to find out more information, academic research shows that just voting against it feels like less of a risk, Skewes said.

Second, the ballot is crowded this year. Amendment 72 is competing with much flashier races for voters’ attention. This year includes one of the most contentious presidential races in recent memory, and there are several other amendments voters have to decide on, including the minimum wage, universal healthcare and “Raise the Bar.” Voters get exhausted wading through inscrutable ballot language and trying to determine what each measure’s impact would actually be, Skewes said, and may just not vote on measures like Amendment 72.

Who is David, and how is he fighting back?

Despite all this, Amendment 72’s supporters have a lot on their side.

Not least is the public consensus that tobacco is harmful. Its status as a carcinogen is so well-cemented that climate change activists often draw parallels between the fossil fuel industry and the tobacco industry to cast the former as science deniers.

Yes on 72 is a coalition of state health and service organizations that boasts support from nine state newspaper editorial boards, over 100 businesses and health-related organizations and Governor Hickenlooper. It also benefits from a general good-guy image: Doctors, hospitals and public health advocates aren’t generally seen as villainous. The campaign uses that image in its own advertising, which primarily sheds light on the opposition’s number one donor.

Yes on 72 spokeswoman Myung Kim said that much of their work leading up to the election has been on efforts to counter the messages No on 72 has been spreading. She said that many of the people they engage with have heard of the amendment only from the “blank check” advertising.

“As a campaign, what’s been frustrating is that the people who are being inundated with these ads don’t know that amendment 72 is about smoking,” Kim said. “And they also don’t know that those ads are coming from the largest tobacco company in the country.”

The campaign is still working to reach voters directly, and plans to do so through Election Day.

Will it pass?

A 9News poll released on Nov. 2 says it’s tied up, with 48 percent on each side.

If it does pass, Amendment 72 may be an indication that the tide has finally, definitively turned on Big Tobacco. If a company like Altria can’t defeat an opponent with only one tenth of its funding, that could be a point of reckoning for the industry.

If it fails, Kim says that public health advocates will continue to fight for more programs to help people stop smoking.

“We’ll figure it out if it happens,” she said.

Photo credit: Fried Dough, Creative Commons, Flickr