Tagged Colorado

Only a Smokescreen? Big Tobacco Stands Down as Colorado and Oregon Hike Cigarette Taxes

Big Tobacco did something unusual in Marlboro Country last fall: It stood aside while Colorado voters approved the state’s first tobacco tax hike in 16 years.

The industry, led by Altria Group, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, has spent exorbitantly in the past to kill similar state ballot initiatives. In 2018, Altria’s lobbying arm spent more than $17 million to help defeat Montana’s tobacco tax ballot initiative. That same year, it spent around $6 million to help defeat South Dakota’s similar measure.

And four years ago, Altria was the leading funder in a successful $16 million campaign to quash Colorado’s previous proposed tobacco tax increase.

In November, by contrast, Altria didn’t spend a penny in opposition and Colorado voters overwhelmingly approved the tax with two-thirds support. Likewise, in Oregon, Big Tobacco stayed on the sidelines while a tax hike passed there.

The tax measures are major wins for anti-smoking advocates after a string of defeats but, in an example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, Colorado’s tax might not have been possible without Altria’s help. And, advocates said, the way those measures passed could provide a blueprint for states to follow in future elections.

In Colorado, Altria, the parent company of Marlboro cigarette maker Philip Morris, insisted that a minimum price be included in the proposal, according to The Colorado Sun, citing emails between political consultants and Gov. Jared Polis’ office. So while supporters see an increased tobacco tax as more revenue for the state, a disincentive for kids to smoke and a win for public health, the measure could also allow America’s premium tobacco companies to gain market share.

The Colorado measure will increase the total state-levied tax from 84 cents to eventually $2.64 per pack by 2027. The tax rate on vaping products, not currently taxed, will be 30% of the manufacturer’s list price in 2021, gradually increasing to 62% by 2027. The proposition also set the minimum price per pack of cigarettes at $7 as of Jan. 1 and that floor rises to $7.50 in 2024. The change could effectively help premium cigarette companies corner the market, since discount cigarettes would rise to at least $7.

Discount cigarette companies Liggett Group, Vector Tobacco and Xcaliber International — which funded opposition to the tax initiative, Proposition EE — tried to sue the state over the minimum tax provision, alleging “Philip Morris will reap huge benefits from the new legislation” and the changes will “destroy their ability to compete in Colorado.” In December, a federal judge rejected the company’s request for a preliminary injunction. A spokesperson for Liggett said the company plans to appeal.

“When it came to entities like Altria and other stakeholders that we engaged in the legislative process, I think that they saw the writing on the wall,” said Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado and one of the key organizers behind Proposition EE. “And it helped us get through the legislative process, not just with Democratic votes, but Republican votes to refer the measure to the ballot.”

Altria officials said in a statement that their tobacco companies oppose excise tax increases, but they did not say whether they had worked with Colorado lawmakers.

“Altria did not advocate for or against Proposition EE, and after evaluating the content and intent of this measure, Colorado voters decided to vote in favor of it, some aspects of which were focused on tobacco harm reduction and may help transition adult smokers to a non-combustible future,” the statement said.

Polis’ office did not respond to a request for comment. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office said it would not comment on matters under active litigation. State Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno and Rep. Julie McCluskie, both state sponsors for the legislation, declined to comment for the same reason. Fellow Democrats Rep. Yadira Caraveo and Sen. Rhonda Fields, also state sponsors for the legislation, did not respond to requests for comment.

Colorado campaign finance records show Altria and Altria’s lobbying arm in 2020 contributed to funds that support both Democratic and Republican candidates in the state — a pattern playing out nationally.

Williams said Altria’s absence of public opposition wasn’t the only factor in the initiative’s success. The tax revenue will initially fund revenue lost during the covid-19 pandemic, then fund tobacco use prevention and eventually preschool education.

The American Lung Association, which supported the Colorado measure, said it believes tobacco taxes are among the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use, especially among youths, who are more sensitive to changes in price. The organization cites studies that found every 10% increase in the price of cigarettes reduces consumption by about 4% for adults and 7% for teens.

“Without tobacco industry opposition, it’s very popular among the public,” Thomas Carr, the association’s director of national policy, said of the tax increase. “We’ve long seen it in polling on the subject.”

There was no major industry opposition to the Oregon increase, either. Its tobacco tax increase — Measure 108 — also got a resounding two-thirds of support. But Oregon didn’t negotiate with Altria lobbyists or set a minimum price provision, according to Elisabeth Shepard, campaign manager for Yes for a Healthy Future.

“I don’t know what the [Colorado] deal was,” Shepard said. “All I know is that before it even made it to the ballot, Altria indicated that they were not going to oppose the measure and stuck with their word.”

While Shepard worried until Election Day whether Big Tobacco would swoop in with opposition in Oregon, it didn’t. She believes her campaign worked because the effort had early resources and money, the tax was targeted to fund the Oregon Health Plan (the state’s Medicaid), and her campaign’s coalition had 300 endorsers, including those in health and business communities.

“We had the left, we had the right, we had the far-right, we had the far-left,” Shepard said.

Her campaign paid its advisory committee members, including representatives from affected communities such as Indigenous Oregonian tribes. At least 30% of American Indian and Alaska Native adults in the state smoke cigarettes. Oregon’s measure increases tobacco taxes $2 per pack, from $1.33 to $3.33, as well as creates a new tax for e-cigarettes. The revenues will help fund an estimated $300 million for the state’s health plan.

Altria did not respond to a request for comment about Oregon tobacco taxes, but the company has previously said it opposed Oregon’s measure.

Shepard believes her campaign model could work in other states. Other anti-smoking advocates took note of the 2020 election.

“We certainly support establishing minimum prices for all tobacco products in conjunction with tobacco tax increases, as we know increasing the price of tobacco products is one of the most effective ways to reduce tobacco use,” said Cathy Callaway, director of state and local campaigns for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

It could just come down to a state’s voters and its politics, according to Mark Mickelson, a former Republican in South Dakota’s legislature. Mickelson was behind creating his state’s failed 2018 tobacco tax ballot initiative.

“We just got beat,” Mickelson said. The opposition “got ahead of us on the message. They had a lot more money and had just played on doubts that the [tax revenue] money would go to tech ed.”

The average state cigarette tax is $1.88 per pack, but it varies across the country — as high as $4.35 in New York but only 44 cents in North Dakota, where a 2016 ballot initiative to increase that to $2.20 was defeated.

Tax increases can translate into hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue for states, said Richard Auxier, senior policy associate at the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

“It’s a little easier to pass a tax on someone else, which is often how this is seen — passing this tax on smokers, rather than passing it on all working people, [compared to] if you were to increase income tax or … a sales tax.”

But not all voters get a say.

In Kentucky, which isn’t a referendum state, Republican state Rep. Jerry Miller said there’s not a lot of sympathy for tobacco companies anymore.

“The agriculture community, which used to be on the same page with cigarette companies, are now always in opposition because the cigarette companies are always trying to tweak their formula to use cheaper tobacco,” he said.

Miller’s recent vaping tax bill failed in the state legislature, but he’s working on a new one.

“We don’t have that tradition or the mechanism that somebody collects 10,000 signatures and they get a referendum on a ballot,” he said. “That’s why things like this have to go through the legislature — and so it really just depends on the state [government].”

Black Women Find Healing (But Sometimes Racism, Too) in the Outdoors

It would be the last hike of the season, Jessica Newton had excitedly posted on her social media platforms. With mild weather forecast and Colorado’s breathtaking fall foliage as a backdrop, she was convinced an excursion at Beaver Ranch Park would be the quintessential way to close out months of warm-weather hikes with her “sister friends.”


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Still, when that Sunday morning in 2018 arrived, she was shocked when her usual crew of about 15 had mushroomed into about 70 Black women. There’s a first time for everything, she thought as they broke into smaller groups and headed toward the nature trail. What a sight they were, she recalled, as the women — in sneakers and hiking boots, a virtual sea of colorful headwraps, flowy braids and dreadlocks, poufy twists and long, flowy locks — trekked peacefully across the craggy terrain in the crisp mountain air.

It. Was. Perfect. Exactly what Newton had envisioned when in 2017 she founded Black Girls Hike to connect with other Black women who share her affinity for outdoor activities. She also wanted to recruit others who had yet to experience the serenity of nature, a pastime she fell for as a child attending an affluent, predominately white private school.

But their peaceful exploration of nature and casual chatter — about everything from food and family to hair care and child care — was abruptly interrupted, she said, by the ugly face of racism.

“We had the sheriff called on us, park rangers called on us,” recalled Newton, now 37, who owns a construction industry project development firm in Denver.

“This lady who was horseback riding was upset that we were hiking on her trail. She said that we’d spooked her horse,” she said of a woman in a group of white horseback riders they encountered. “It just didn’t make any sense. I felt like, it’s a horse and you have an entire mountain that you can trot through, run through, gallop through or whatever. She was just upset that we were in her space.”

Eventually, two Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies, with guns on their hips, approached, asking, “What’s going on here?” They had been contacted by rangers who’d received complaints about a large group of Black women being followed by camera drones in the park; the drones belonged to a national television news crew shooting a feature on the group. (The segment aired weeks later, but footage of the confrontation wasn’t included.)

“‘Move that mob!’” attendee Portia Prescott recalled one of the horseback riders barking.

“Why is it that a group of Black women hiking on a trail on a Sunday afternoon in Colorado is considered a ‘mob?’” Prescott asked.

A man soon arrived who identified himself as the husband of one of the white women on horseback and the manager of the park, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office incident report, and began arguing with the television producers in what one deputy described in the report as a “hostile” manner.

The leader of the horseback tour told the deputies that noise from the large group and the drones startled the horses and that when she complained to the news crew, they told her to deal with it herself, the report said. The news crew told deputies that the group members felt insulted by the horseback riders use of the term “mob.” The woman leading the horseback riders, identified in the incident report as Marie Elliott, said that she did not remember calling the group a mob, but she told the officers she “would have said the same thing if the group had been a large group of Girl Scouts.”

In the end, Newton and her fellow hikers were warned for failing to secure a permit for the group. Newton said she regrets putting members in a distressing — and potentially life-threatening — situation by unknowingly breaking a park rule. However, she suspects that a similarly sized hiking group of white women would not have been confronted so aggressively.

“You should be excited that we are bringing more people to use your parks,” added Newton. “Instead, we got slammed with [threats of] violations and ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Please, get your people and get out of here.’ It’s just crazy.”

Mike Taplin, spokesperson for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that no citations were issued. The deputies “positively engaged with everyone, with the goal of preserving the peace,” he said.

Newton said the “frustrating” incident has reminded her why her group, which she has revamped and renamed Vibe Tribe Adventures, is so needed in the white-dominated outdoor enthusiasts’ arena.

With the tagline “Find your tribe,” the group aims to create a sisterhood for Black women “on the trails, on waterways and in our local communities across the globe.” Last summer, she secured nonprofit status and expanded Vibe Tribe’s focus, adding snowshoeing, fly-fishing, zip lining and kayaking to its roster. Today, the Denver-based group has 11 chapters across the U.S. (even Guam) and Canada, with about 2,100 members.

Research suggests her work is needed. The most recent National Park Service survey found that 6% of visitors are Black, compared with 77% white. Newton said that must change — especially given the opportunities parks provide and the health challenges that disproportionately plague Black women. Research shows they experience higher rates of chronic preventable health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. A 2020 study found that racial discrimination also may increase stress, lead to health problems and reduce cognitive functioning in Black women. Newton said it underscores the need for stress-relieving activities.

“It’s been studied at several colleges that if you are outdoors for at least five minutes, it literally brings your stress level down significantly,” said Newton. “Being around nature, it’s like grounding yourself. That is vital.”

Newton said participation in the group generally tapers off in winter. She is hopeful, though, that cabin fever from the pandemic will inspire more Black women to try winter activities.

Atlanta member Stormy Bradley, 49, said the group has added value to her life. “I am a happier and healthier person because I get to do what I love,” said the sixth grade teacher. “The most surprising thing is the sisterhood we experience on and off the trails.”

Patricia Cameron, a Black woman living in Colorado Springs, drew headlines this summer when she hiked 486 miles — from Denver to Durango — and blogged about her experience to draw attention to diversity in the outdoors. She founded the Colorado nonprofit Blackpackers in 2019.

“One thing I caught people saying a lot of is ‘Well, nature is free’ and ‘Nature isn’t racist’ — and there’s two things wrong with that,” said Cameron, a 37-year-old single mother of a preteen.

“Nature and outside can be free, yes, but what about transportation? How do you get to certain outdoor environments? Do you have the gear to enjoy the outdoors, especially in Colorado, where we’re very gear-conscious and very label-conscious?” she asked. “Nature isn’t going to call me the N-word, but the people outside might.”

Cameron applauds Newton’s efforts and those of other groups nationwide, like Nature Gurlz, Outdoor Afro, Diversify Outdoors, Black Outdoors, Soul Trak Outdoors, Melanin Base Camp and Black Girls Run, that have a similar mission. Cameron said it also was encouraging that the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, pledged in the wake of the racial unrest sparked by George Floyd’s death to help address a “long history of systemic racism and injustice” in the outdoors.

Efforts to draw more Black people, especially women, outdoors, Cameron said, must include addressing barriers, like cost. For example, Blackpackers provides a “gear locker” to help members use pricey outdoor gear free or at discounted rates. She has also partnered with businesses and organizations that subsidize and sponsor outdoor excursions. During the pandemic, Vibe Tribe has waived all membership fees through this month.

Cameron said she dreams of a day when Black people are free from the pressures of carrying the nation’s racial baggage when participating in outdoor activities.

Vibe Tribe member and longtime outdoor enthusiast Jan Garduno, 52, of Aurora, Colorado, agreed that fear and safety are pressing concerns. For example, leading up to the presidential election she changed out of her “Let My People Vote” T-shirt before heading out on a solo walk for fear of how other hikers might react.

Groups like Vibe Tribe, she said, provide camaraderie and an increased sense of safety. And another plus? The health benefits can also be transformative.

“I’ve been able to lose about 40 pounds and I’ve kept it off,” explained Garduno.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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