Idaho may not look like tobacco country, but the tobacco industry has pumped more than $110,000 into Idaho political campaigns in the last three years.
And the industry pays four lobbyists to promote its interests in the state Legislature.
“It’s a legitimate product, it’s a product that is sold and from which the state derives one heck of a lot of money,” said Bill Roden, lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute in Boise. “To that extent, it is like any other business that is regulated. … and the industry certainly should be able to present its views to government and to government officials.”
A close look at the industry’s Idaho contributions shows it spreads money among many legislators, so it’s well-prepared when tobacco-related legislation comes up in Boise.
This year, when a major tobacco bill was debated, more than a third of Idaho’s lawmakers had received contributions, including the chairman of the committee hearing the bill, eight committee members, and key members of leadership in both parties.
“The resources they have are just staggering,” said Selina Carver-Shaw of the American Cancer Society’s Idaho division. Her group helped kill this year’s bill, which would have prevented communities from passing smoking restrictions any stricter than state law. The industry has pushed such legislation successfully in 28 states.
Carver-Shaw said the industry is adept at finding representatives who are well-connected former insiders. Three of the four Idaho lobbyists are former state legislators. Roden, who served four terms in the state Senate in the 1960s and has represented the Tobacco Institute since 1973, is among Boise’s most-respected longtime lobbyists.
“Yeah, I’ve been around a long time, but I don’t think that makes any difference at all in how the Legislature views these issues,” Roden said. “If it did, they would’ve passed my bill this year.”
In the last three years, tobacco interests gave $33,000 to Idaho congressional candidates, and spent $77,681.50 on state races, including contributions to political parties and candidates for the Legislature, governor and attorney general.
Tobacco is like any other industry, said Maura Ellis, senior director of public relations for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. “Like most other major employers, we’ve got business in all 50 states and issues arise from time to time.”
Darienne Dennis, director of communications for Philip Morris Cos., one of the biggest givers, said, “We support people who share similar views to us.” Dennis spoke by phone from the Republican National Convention last week, of which Philip Morris was a major sponsor. The company also will sponsor this week’s Democratic convention, through its Kraft Foods division.
Tobacco isn’t among the top 10 campaign contributors nationwide, according to the Federal Elections Commission. The top givers in the nation are the trial lawyers’ association and, surprisingly, United Parcel Service.
The Cancer Society’s Carver-Shaw draws a distinction. “UPS doesn’t kill people,” she said.
“I guess the issue is that they’re putting out a product that is addictive and it’s dangerous, and so that’s the issue that we take with it. ” The four tobacco lobbyists in Boise represent R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and the Smokeless Tobacco Council, in addition to the Tobacco Institute.
Despite the ubiquitous tobacco lobby, Idaho passed a “Clean Indoor Air Act” in 1985 that required nonsmoking areas in public places like arenas and large restaurants. Bill Smith, who headed the American Lung Association’s Idaho office for 14 years, said, “Everyone said it would never happen in Idaho. It took us five years.”
Since then, repeated efforts to win similar restrictions for workplaces have been rebuffed.
Tobacco contributions appear to target lawmakers of influence, about a sixth of them Democrats. Some are committee chairmen. Only rarely has the industry picked a candidate who didn’t win election.
“It’s just an issue of looking at the individual candidates,” Ellis said. “Sometimes they’re Democrats, sometimes they’re Republicans.”
Dennis, of Philip Morris, said, “As a rule, we are nonpartisan and issues-oriented.” Top issues for tobacco interests are taxation and efforts to limit advertising, she said.
Roden said he doesn’t expect votes in exchange for contributions. Instead, he tries to direct money toward candidates who are open-minded and will listen to his arguments, with the hope that the contributions will help them get elected.
“I can’t believe that a $200 contribution is going to change someone’s vote,” he said.
Ellis said R.J. Reynolds hopes for access to legislators as a result of its campaign contributions. If her company is interested in an issue and approaches a lawmaker it supported, she said, “One would hope … that he or she will at least hear you out.”