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Utah lawmakers kick the habit

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The anti-tobacco bill may be deathly ill in the U.S. Senate, but the whole tobacco controversy has had a political effect in Utah - legislators are backing away from accepting cash contributions from tobacco companies.

Last fall, the Deseret News ran an in-depth story examining which Utah lawmakers were taking tobacco money at the same time Attorney General Jan Graham and the state were suing tobacco companies for $130 million to recover tax dollars spent on health-care costs of smokers.Back then, one of the concerns of legislators who were refusing to take tobacco company contributions was that their House and Senate party political action committees were taking tobacco money - and then passing on the "tainted" money to the legislators' re-election campaigns.

This week, House and Senate Democratic leaders told the Deseret News that their PACs would no longer accept tobacco money. House and Senate Republican leaders said most likely their PACs also wouldn't accept tobacco money, although no final decisions had been made.

Individual lawmakers can accept or reject tobacco contributions as they see fit, said the leaders. But the leaders themselves said they wouldn't personally be taking such contributions in the future.

For the Democrats, it's a clear switch. If Republicans also shun tobacco money from their PACs, it's a change also. (See chart).

In 1996, Philip Morris offered $48,700 to 55 legislative candidates and incumbents seeking re-election. The newspaper found that 43 incumbents accepted a total of $15,200 from the tobacco giant.

House Minority Leader Dave Jones, D-Salt Lake, said House Democrats are going cold turkey. The House Democratic PAC won't take any tobacco money this year, while just two years ago it took all tobacco money offered.

"I won't accept the tobacco money myself (he took $400 in 1996), and I'm encouraging all Democratic candidates for the House not to accept it," said Jones.

For years, lawmakers who took Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco money said it really wasn't tobacco money but rather contributions from the huge firms' food product divisions. However, research by the newspaper showed that most of the profits of the firms come from their tobacco subsidiaries. For example, in 1996, 67 percent of Philip Morris' operating profits came from tobacco.

"We all know where this tobacco money comes from. It comes from selling tobacco products," often to minors, not from food products, said Jones. "When you look at the kinds of activities the tobacco companies have been engaged in - the insolence - taking their money is not consistent with our beliefs in the House Democrats," said Jones.

Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Granite, said his PAC won't take tobacco money this year, neither will he personally. (Howell took $200 in tobacco money in 1996).

Senate President Lane Beattie, R-West Bountiful, said this week that he would have never accepted any money either personally or for the Senate GOP PAC if he had ever been lobbied by Philip Morris or RJR Nabisco on tobacco issues. "And (the lobbyists) have never mentioned cigarettes to me," said Beattie.

House Speaker Mel Brown, R-Midvale, said much the same thing. But he said because of the national and local media attention given to the tobacco issue, he's changed his mind personally. He will no longer take tobacco money. (He took $1,200 in 1996). And he'll recommend that the House GOP PAC not accept it either.

Brown said he personally received an unsolicited contribution from Philip Morris earlier this year and he returned it. "I did accept it (tobacco money) in the past. What's changed is what we're finding out, what's happening nationally (concerning tobacco's role in soliciting youthful smokers). I don't think it's a wise thing to do" - accept tobacco contributions again.

Some House and Senate incumbents over the past several years have accepted tobacco contributions but then given the money to a charity. Sen. Dave Buhler, R-Salt Lake, found out this year you have to be careful how you give that money away.

He got $200 from Philip Morris lobbyists Sue and Cap Ferry earlier this year. "It was unsolicited. I wrote out a campaign check to the American Cancer Society, along with a letter saying please take this (tobacco) money. The Cancer Society sent me back a nice letter saying they wouldn't take tobacco money. So I wrote another check to Primary Children's Hospital and I didn't tell them where the $200 came from. From now on, I'll just refuse the tobacco (company's) check in the first place," said Buhler.


Additional Information

, 1996 political contributions by tobacco firms

Accepted Returned

House Democratic PAC $5,300 None

Senate Democratic PAC $4,400 $200*

House Republican PAC $9,600 None

Senate Republican PAC $8,000 $350

* NOTE - Money given by the Tobacco Institute, the lobby arm of the tobacco industry, returned by Senate Democrats and Republicans. House Democrats and Republicans accepted Tobacco Institute mone.