SACRAMENTO — After a long string of losses in California, the tobacco industry is on the verge of some rare victories as industry allies in the Legislature prepare to block new restrictions on smoking and perhaps even succeed in easing current laws.
Aiding the industry are Republican allies who control the Assembly and oppose new limits on tobacco. At the same time, the industry has shifted its political strategy, and it now doles out far more campaign money to Republican legislators than Democrats, especially in the Assembly.
Consider, for example, the Republican chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, Brett Granlund. A first-term lawmaker from Yucaipa, Granlund accepted a $20,000 check last month from Philip Morris Inc., the world's largest cigarette maker. During his short tenure in Sacramento, Granlund has received at least $44,500 in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry.
In February, Granlund introduced a bill to make cigarette vending machines more accessible. The bill would weaken a new state law that bans cigarette vending machines anywhere other than in an estimated 5,000 bars in the state.
"I'll take free enterprise over political correctness any time," Granlund said in an interview.
Granlund's bill, which faces its first committee vote today, would allow vending machines in up to 30,000 restaurants around the state and in factories. Supermarkets also could have vending machines, so long as the machines are equipped with locking devices, to guard against minors buying cigarettes.
"I am a free-enterprise, no-tax, smoker," Granlund added. "It doesn't matter if I'm chairing the Health Committee. Those [anti-smoking] people don't have a right to tell everybody else how to live."
While Granlund's bill is not assured of passage, it represents a significant change from the days when Democrats controlled the Assembly. Democratic Health Committee chairmen made a practice of refusing tobacco industry campaign money, routinely voting against industry-backed bills, and carrying legislation aimed at restricting cigarette makers.
Under Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, who selects committee members, every GOP health committee member accepts tobacco money, as do most Democratic members.
"Some of the legislative changes [to limit tobacco] swung the pendulum too far in one direction," Pringle said, adding that he has "no hesitation" in taking tobacco money. He intends to oppose new anti-tobacco bills and support rollbacks of some restrictions. "That's what our battle has been on a variety of business bills."
Tobacco industry spokesmen and their lobbyists in Sacramento do not discuss strategy in any detail, but companies defend their political contributions. They say the money is not intended to buy influence, but rather to support lawmakers who side with them. Even though the tobacco industry has spent millions over the past decade on lobbying and campaigns in California, this state has led the nation in anti-tobacco efforts.
It started in 1988 when voters approved Proposition 99, which added a 25-cent per pack tax on cigarettes. In 1994, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation making California the first state to ban smoking in restaurants and most other indoor workplaces. That same year, voters overwhelmingly rejected a 1994 tobacco industry-backed initiative to roll back the restrictions. Now, however, there are indications that California no longer is at the fore of the anti-tobacco fight:
* Seven states have sued the tobacco industry to recoup state money spent on smoking-related illnesses. California Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren has balked at bringing a similar suit, though he is "monitoring" the litigation in other states, a spokesman for the Republican attorney general said.
Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco) is pushing a resolution urging Lungren to sue the tobacco industry. But Pringle opposes such litigation, suggesting that Burton's resolution may fail when it comes up for a vote.
"Isn't this opening the door to [the state suing over] swimming pools, or automobiles, or second-story balconies, or child cribs?" Pringle asked.
* For three years running, Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature have tried to use a portion of the money raised by the 25-cent per pack cigarette tax for health programs not specifically related to tobacco. Anti-smoking activists have sued, and trial courts have ruled in their favor, saying that the money must be spent on anti-tobacco advertising, education and research.
Wilson has appealed those decisions, and he has no plans to spend $100 million of the disputed money until the cases are resolved. In his new budget, the governor has yet to allocate an additional $81 million in cigarette tax money. He intends to "look for the wisest investment of taxpayer dollars" before spending it, a Wilson spokesman said.