The growing popularity in California of e-cigarettes, electronic sticks that vaporize liquid nicotine, isn’t the only sign that Big Tobacco is still a major economic force in the state.
The Sacramento Bee reported this week that the companies are enjoying a renaissance in Sacramento, where Democratic state lawmakers have re-embraced two major cigarette companies. A Bee analysis of data from the past five years found that Altria and R.J. Reynolds quadrupled their contributions to Democrats and seem to have been rewarded for the effort.
Although coincidence is not causality, it is hard to ignore the political victories secured by the tobacco industry recently as campaign contributions from the two companies to Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature and the state house, increased from $43,300 in 2009 to $196,100 in 2013.
Republicans used to be the industry favorite for campaign contributions, but Democrats, who received 14.7% of the money doled out in 2009, got 46.6% of the cash last year.
In return—or coincidentally—bills opposed by the industry stalled in the Legislature. The Bee summarized it thusly:
“Legislation to ban smoking on public school campuses, in apartment buildings, and at state parks and beaches withered in committee. Proposals to raise taxes on cigarettes went nowhere. One bill to limit Internet sales of electronic cigarettes was shelved, while another originally meant to restrict use of electronic cigarettes was rewritten to allow them to be sold from vending machines in bars.”
Assemblyman John Perez, who recently stepped down as Speaker, was the top recipient of money from the companies, at $95,600. He was followed by Governor Jerry Brown ($55,500), convicted felon but still Senator Roderick Wright ($40,400), Senator Jim Nielsen ($39,700), Assemblyman Isadore Hall ($35,700) and Senator Ted Gaines ($35,600). Hall is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization, which has primary jurisdiction over tobacco legislation.
Industry critics seemed incredulous about what would motivate lawmakers in a state with the second-lowest smoking rate, no tobacco farming and few tobacco-related jobs (not counting lobbyists) to cozy up to the still-reviled industry. “What exactly are the interests in California that politicians can protect?” former Governor Gray Davis campaign manager and Democratic strategist Garry South asked the Bee. Lobbyists have “shifted their whole strategy to try to buy off Democrats,” he said.
Local, state and federal governments are wrestling with proposed regulations and laws concerning e-cigarettes, which tobacco companies are heavily invested in. There are few at the federal level (e.g., no vaporizing on airplanes) and state level in California (no sales to kids).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed rules in April to extend the Tobacco Control Act to electronic cigarettes and other products containing nicotine derived from tobacco. That would include cigars, pipe tobacco, hookah tobacco, gels and dissolvables. The regulations were tamped down by the White House.
The local scene is more dynamic. Californians, who are accustomed to smoke-free public accommodations, restaurants and bars, have increasingly been subjected to swirls of scented vapor wafting through the air and have asked their cities and counties to do something about it. Dozens have restricted vaporizing to the same places as tobacco smoking.
The conflict is just getting started and tobacco companies are still developing their legislative strategies. But big money is already flowing.