The politics of tobacco

By Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder

Virginia is home to the nation’s largest producer of tobacco products, Philip Morris USA. The company produces Marlboro, which made up 44 percent of the nation’s cigarette market share in 2015.

With big corporations comes big clout, which Philip Morris USA’s parent company, Altria, deploys strategically.

Altria is the largest tobacco company donor to federal politicians and parties in the U.S., according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Virginia Public Access Project ranks Altria as 17th in a list of Virginia’s top donors for 2014-2015, with total donations of $662,615. The only company ranked above Altria is Dominion Energy, with $1,314,024. The remaining 15 donors are political action committees and organizations.

So far in 2016, Altria has donated $915,475, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, almost three times the amount of the second-highest tobacco company donor.

Some Virginians may be unaware of just how prevalent Altria is in the state’s political arena.

Altria’s website lists 129 separate donations to Virginia Senate and House of Delegates hopefuls and members and PACS during 2015.

For reference, there are 100 members of the Virginia House of Delegates and 40 Senate members.

These donations range from $500 to $75,000.

A few elected officials are not on Altria’s list of recipients. One is Del. Kathleen Murphy of Fairfax.

“If anybody sells cigarettes, I won’t take their money,” Murphy, a Democrat, said. “Cigarettes cause cancer. We know it. We don’t want people smoking. Why would you take their money?”

Murphy said she has not been offered a donation from Altria.

“I’ve made it clear that I would not accept a donation,” Murphy said.

She has supported several bills that recommended a higher state cigarette tax.

Murphy said that donations of $500 or $1,000 probably would not sway a candidate to vote a certain way on an issue that is not important to them.

“There’s two ways to look at it. People donate to you because they like the way you vote, or people donate to you because they want you to vote for them,” she said.

The majority of political contributions from Altria go to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Altria’s website lists its largest 2015 donation in Virginia to the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus at $75,000. But its second highest donation—$50,000— went to the Common Good Virginia PAC, a political action committee created by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

Sen. Thomas “Tommy” Norment, the current Republican Majority Leader in Virginia’s Senate, was the recipient of the Altria’s highest individual donation. He received $20,000 from Altria in 2015. Norment represents Virginia’s third senatorial district, which includes King and Queen County, King William County, Kent County and Gloucester County.

Virginia does not have a contribution limit for corporations.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Hot Springs whose district includes Rockbridge County, accepted a $500 donation from Altria in 2015. He says that he may not agree with a company like Philip Morris on every issue, but he is not going to let that shut the door to future conversations.

“If I am in a district with people working for Philip Morris, I am going to want to keep those people working,” Deeds said. “That is going to matter to me a lot more as a local politician than the $500 or $1,000 that Philip Morris might donate to my political efforts every four years.”

Among the issues near and dear to the heart of Altria’s team is the Virginia cigarette tax, which, at 30 cents per pack, is the second-lowest in the country. All of the states contiguous to Virginia have tax rates at least 50 percent higher. Maryland’s rate ($2.00) is more than six times that in Virginia, and the District of Columbia’s rate ($2.50) is eight times higher.

The average state cigarette tax is $1.61 per pack.

Altria declined to comment to the Rockbridge Report, saying it does not respond to student publications. But its website lists the reasons it would not support an increased cigarette tax.

The website says: “States that rely on a cigarette excise tax to fund government programs will create long-term revenue shortfalls that will have to be paid off with other revenues or through additional tax increases.”

The website asserts that increasing taxes might be unfair to tobacco users because they bear the economic burden of funding programs that benefit many beyond themselves.

Tobacco is a regressive tax, so as the tax increases, Altria says, the low-income adult tobacco users bear the brunt of the adverse economic impacts.

A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found this to be true. It indicated that increasing a cigarette tax may not deter low-income parties from smoking, and therefore, it could cause a “disproportionate burden on poor smokers.”

Despite Altria’s arguments for keeping the tax low, Murphy believes the main consideration should be health.

“Some cannot keep denying that cigarettes are a health hazard,” she said.