Big tobacco kicked big bucks into Utah politics

Big tobacco companies contributed $67,000 to Utah office holders and their political action committees in 2009, as lawmakers wrangle over whether to nearly triple the state’s cigarette tax.

Many elected officials in Utah — including Gov. Gary Herbert and Senate President Michael Waddoups — refuse contributions from alcohol and tobacco companies.

But more than a third of legislators did receive money from Altria Client Services Inc. and Reynolds American Inc. Altria is the parent company of Phillip Morris, the maker of Marlboro and other brands and the nation’s largest cigarette maker. Reynolds American Inc. makes Camel cigarettes and other brands.

“Just personally, it concerns me that the money [legislators] receive came from the poison these folks sold and I wish they were a little more discrete about accepting it,” said Michael Siler, government relations director for the Utah chapter of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, who received $1,500 last year from Altria, said he has no problem taking the money and disclosing it, but it doesn’t affect his votes.

“If you can’t look at somebody straight in the face and take their money and vote according to your conscience, you probably shouldn’t take the money,” Killpack said.

Waddoups said he no longer accepts contributions from tobacco companies, after constituents voiced objections. However, the Senate Leadership

Political Action Committee, which Waddoups and other members of Senate leadership lead, received a total of $14,000 from Altria and Reynolds.

Herbert received a $5,000 contribution from Altria last year. But a spokeswoman said the governor has a policy against taking money from alcohol and tobacco companies and the contribution was returned.

More than 80 percent of Utah lawmakers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which eschews tobacco use. The state has the lowest rate of tobacco use in the country, with less than 10 percent of the population using cigarettes.

Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, who received $500 from Altria, said he can separate the contribution from the issues before legislators.

“They’re not buying my vote,” said Frank, who also co-chairs the House Conservative Caucus, which received $1,500 from Altria. “The money that’s given to legislators related to tobacco PACs and corporations is something that I think represents the people who work at the companies.”

Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria, said political participation is “vital to our democracy.”

“We actively engage on public policy issues that affect our business and by engaging with everyone, from government officials to consumers, the company works to pursue a responsible approach to issues that affect our company,” Phelps said.

Siler said he believes the tobacco companies’ political contributions show that they’re worried about a tobacco tax increase passing this session.

Sen. Allen Christensen will once again sponsor legislation this year that would raise Utah’s cigarette tax to $2 per pack — a substantial increase from the 69.5 cents per pack tax now in place.

Christensen said there is overwhelming public support for the bill, but he knows the tobacco companies will come after the bill with lobbyists and campaign money.

“There are some lobbyists on this Hill who don’t believe in tobacco, but they’ve sold their soul for the dollars and they’ve talked themselves into believing it’s OK,” Christensen said. “If you have enough of them and they lobby long and hard enough and tell the same lie over and over, sooner or later some of [the legislators] start to believe it.”

But Killpack says it’s disingenuous for proponents of the tobacco tax hike to argue they are concerned about smokers’ health and costs related to their illness, and then use the money to alleviate state budget woes.

Christensen says he doesn’t care what is done with the money — his focus is on the nearly 12,000 people who, it is projected, would quit smoking and 2,400 lives that could be saved due to a tax hike.

Top Recipients of Tobacco Dollars:

» Senate Republican Campaign Committee: $14,000

» Utah House Republican Election Committee: $5,500

» Gov. Gary Herbert: $5,000*

» Utah State Democratic Party: $3,500

» Utah State Republican Party: $3,000

» Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: $3,000

» Sen. Stephen Urquhart: $2,000

» House Democratic Caucus: $2,000

» House Speaker David Clark: $1,500

» Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack: $1,500

» House Conservative Caucus: $1,500

*Note: Herbert’s office said the contribution was accepted by mistake and has been returned.

Source: Campaign finance disclosures filed with the Utah Lieutenant Governor’s office.

By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune
01/13/2010

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