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Tobacco Industry's Threats: Provocative, But Legal

Mar 15, 2016

The campaign for a November ballot measure to raise California’s tobacco tax is criticizing reported threats it says came from industry lobbyists. The targets are six anti-tobacco bills passed by the Legislature last week. As Ben Adler reports from Sacramento, the threats may be provocative – but they’re also legal.

If the anti-tobacco bills become law, the tobacco industry has reportedly threatened to use California’s referendum process to overturn at least some of them. The industry has threatened to pay $10 for every voter signature. That would drive up the cost to qualify every other ballot measure gathering signatures – including the tobacco tax increase, and Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed overhaul of California’s criminal justice sentencing system. Jim Knox is with the American Cancer Society, which supports the tobacco tax.

Knox: “This is an industry that will stoop to anything to continue its business model to try to addict kids to a lifelong nicotine habit.”

Neither the lobbyist accused of making a threat nor his client, the tobacco company Altria, responded to requests for comment. But three experts we spoke with say the threats appear to be perfectly legal. Retired FBI agent James Wedick used to investigate corrupt California lawmakers.

Wedick: “Yes, it may sound nasty and they’re fighting, but that doesn’t make it a federal criminal case.”

Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson:

Levinson: “I don’t think it rises to the level of extortion under the California penal code.”

And Gary Winuk, the former chief of enforcement for California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.

Winuk: “Although some may find that type of influencing distasteful, it really doesn’t violate the Political Reform Act or any other ethics law.”

In what could be a political countermove, the Legislature still hasn’t sent the bills to the governor – even though they won final approval last week. That means Brown’s 12-day decision period hasn’t begun. The longer this drag on, the longer it’ll be before the tobacco industry can start paying for signatures – presuming, of course, that Brown signs the bills – which is not guaranteed.