Wayne Greene: Website links tobacco money, Oklahoma leaders
BY WAYNE GREENE World Senior Writer
Sunday, October 07, 2012
10/07/12 at 5:32 AM
The Capitol Report is home to all the reporting on 2012 Oklahoma Legislative session.
A retired state health department worker has come up with an aggressive tool aimed at the lobbying muscle of the tobacco industry.
Tobaccomoney.com is the creation of Doug Matheny.
He told me that he had seen tobacco money skew the results of public policy debates at the state Capitol when he worked as the director of tobacco prevention for the health department, but his state job prevented him from doing much about it.
After he retired, Matheny said he looked for a way to get what was in the public record to the public, and he decided on his website.
Here are some facts from Matheny's effort:
Since 2006, Oklahoma legislators have accepted $242,719 in campaign contributions, meals and other gifts from current tobacco lobbyists and tobacco company political action committees.
Another $50,000 has been accepted by various statewide House and Senate election committees.
Nine representatives and 11 senators have accepted a total of $3,000 or more.
Some of the biggest recipients of tobacco company money are some of the most powerful people in the Legislature.
The campaign fund of Rep. T.W. Shannon, who will be the speaker of the House next year, received $5,300 from the PACs of tobacco giants Reynolds America and Altria and from lobbyists working for the tobacco industry. Shannon, R-Lawton, also received more than $300 in meals paid for by tobacco lobbyists, according to Matheny's website.
Since 2006, the campaign fund for Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, has gotten $6,000 in tobacco-linked donations and more than $1,000 in gifts, almost all in lobbyists' meals, the site shows.
Anti-tobacco advocates say money from the industry has an effect on state policy.
"The tobacco industry is seeing a major return on its investment in Oklahoma's political system," Dr. Robert McCaffree, co-director of the Oklahoma Tobacco Research Center in a press release promoting the site. "There's a clear correlation between tobacco industry contributions and the suppression or opposition of legislation ... to reduce tobacco use in our state, particularly among legislators accepting campaign contributions from tobacco company PACs."
Matheny pointed out that for three consecutive years the Legislature has considered bills to strike a state law that prevents local governments from having stricter public tobacco-use regulations than the state, the so-called tobacco pre-emption law.
His site also includes quotes - drawn from public litigation files - of tobacco industry leaders discussing how to use lobbyists and how to block efforts to kill the pre-emption bill, including this from a 1990 memo written by Tobacco Institute Regional Vice President Stan Bowman: "... above all, we intend to resist, at all costs, any attempt ... to repeal the state's preemption of local smoking regulation. I have great confidence in the industry's lobbying corps in Oklahoma."
Bryan Hatchell, communications director for the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., said he's never seen a similar effort in other states, but he isn't surprised by it.
He said it is related to a Wednesday interim study held by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee to consider policies to encourage smokers to switch from cigarettes to smokeless tobacco as a means of reducing their health risks.
A University of Louisville researcher testified at the hearing that smokeless tobacco is vastly safer than smoking and an effective way to wean smokers off cigarettes.
Hatchell said he suspects tobacco prohibitionists put out the website in an attempt to fight any legislation to come from the legislative study.
"These guys are wrong on the science on tobacco harm reduction and so, instead of making a case there, they're going after the messenger," he said. "That's what they're doing."
The website overstates the tobacco industry's influence by including all contributions from lobbyists who contract for tobacco companies as if they came from the companies, Hatchell said.
In fact, the lobbyists work for many clients, so it's impossible to say where the contributions come from.
Since 2006, the average contribution from the Reynolds PAC was about $106, Hatchell said.
The company complies completely with all rules and laws concerning its political donations, he said.
"It is part of the political process, and we take part just like anybody else," he said.
The website includes a pledge for lawmakers to sign, agreeing not to accept campaign contributions, meals or other gifts from tobacco political action committees or tobacco lobbyists.
So far, his effort has only found one legislator - Sen. Frank Simpson, R-Ardmore, dubbed a "hero" on the website - who has agreed not to take tobacco money.
"The tobacco lobby is pretty strong," Simpson said. "... It is a formidable opponent any time you try to enact or carry legislation that puts limits or restrictions on the use of tobacco."
Original Print Headline: Website links tobacco money, Oklahoma leaders
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