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Big Tobacco retains its clout

Dan Morain, San Francisco Chronicle

The tobacco industry has had a rough patch lately. The industry lost big in the courts in May. First, the California Supreme Court reinstated a major consumer lawsuit aimed at cigarette-makers’ decadeslong advertising campaign. The case focuses on industry deceits including claims implying that “light” cigarettes were less harmful than regular cigarettes.

A few days later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., affirmed a 2006 lower court decision that the tobacco industry violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, citing past industry claims that nicotine was not addictive, that tobacco did not cause cancer and that secondhand smoke was not harmful. Then in June, President Obama signed legislation placing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in charge of tobacco regulation.

But the industry is nothing if not cunning. No sooner did it seemingly lose than it started flexing its muscle in California.

On the very day when the House approved legislation authorizing FDA regulation, the industry sent an e-mail to Sacramento legislators inviting them to a “cigar mixer.” The industry long has been among the big moneyed interests that keep Sacramento lubricated with money.

In case tobacco-friendly legislators need cover, the industry embarked on a campaign to gin up opposition to a proposed tobacco tax increase. You could walk into liquor stores in parts of the state this summer, and see evidence of tobacco’s fight to block a higher tobacco tax. The proposed $1.50-per-pack state tax (up from 87 cents), offered by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima (Los Angeles County), and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would raise more than $1 billion a year, and help avert drastic cuts in state-funded health care and public education. “Help stop this new cigarette tax,” say the flyers, strategically placed at counter level. The index card-size notes, designed to be torn off by customers, urge that people call their legislators immediately. The call will be toll free, courtesy of Philip Morris, USA, the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer. The effort had its impact. No matter that California’s tobacco tax is lower than taxes imposed by more than 30 other states. The proposed tobacco tax increase stalled in the Legislature, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to block any tax increase.

Foes of Padilla’s SB600 range from chambers of commerce to anti-tax groups, many of which have received tobacco industry money in the past.

When the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court conclusion that cigarette executives defrauded the public by claiming nicotine wasn’t addictive and “light” cigarettes were less deadly than regular cigarettes, the judges were direct: “Defendants knew of their falsity at the time and made the statements with intent to deceive. Thus, we are not dealing with accidental falsehoods or sincere attempts to persuade; defendants’ liability rests on deceits perpetrated with knowledge of their falsity.”

Now that the FDA is about to start regulating tobacco, the public could be lulled into thinking that the industry has been brought to heel. Based on what is happening in California, that view would be naive.

Dan Morain is communications director for Consumer Attorneys of California.

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