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Big tobacco stubs out cigarette tax

Colorado’s David and Goliath race is over. Goliath won.

Amendment 72 was called at 9 P.M Tuesday. It failed.

The measure would have revised the state constitution to add a tax of $1.75 per pack of 20 cigarettes, to be diverted to public health programs. In support were doctors, hospitals and public health advocates seeking to limit smoking, with a campaign war chest of about $2.1 million. Opposing the measure was one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, which spent more than eight times that amount.

Who is Goliath and what did he do?

The Richmond, Virginia-based tobacco giant Altria Client Services, LLC, formerly Philip Morris, 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 the company 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 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 than 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 mentioned cigarettes or tobacco. Instead, they suggested that the money raised from an increased tobacco would have been 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 suggested 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.

Elizabeth Skewes, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at CU Boulder’s journalism school, said the campaign’s choice of message was strategically wise.

Coloradans generally have accepted that smoking is harmful to public health, so tobacco tax opponents had 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.

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 was crowded this year. Amendment 72 competed with much flashier races for voters’ attention. This year included one of the most contentious presidential races in recent memory, and there were several other amendments voters had to decide, 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 did he try and fight back?

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

Not least was 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 was a coalition of state health and service organizations that boasted support from nine state newspaper editorial boards, more than 100 businesses and health-related organizations and Governor John Hickenlooper. The yes-campaign also benefitted from a general good-guy image: Doctors, hospitals and public health advocates aren’t generally seen as villainous. The campaign used that messaging in its advertising, which primarily shed 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 was 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.”

What does the defeat mean?

If you ask the folks at Yes on 72, it’s deeply lamentable.

Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, released a statement just after the race was called.

“Amendment 72 would have reduced smoking, especially among children, and would have invested money in programs to support veterans and those most harmed by smoking,” Williams said. “Having been outspent 14 to 1 on advertising, we couldn’t overcome Philip Morris’ smear campaign.”

Williams further said that his team would start evaluating other options to reduce smoking rates.

“We’re going to look at our options beyond taxation.”

Then, sounding exhausted, he added, “We’re just trying to keep Coloradans, especially kids, from getting addicted to tobacco.”

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