At their meeting last week in Salt Lake City, members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) attended a workshop entitled, “Can Tobacco Cure Smoking?” conducted by Dr. Brad Rodu, chair of tobacco harm reduction research at the University of Louisville.
Rodu, a dentist by training, has conducted research suggesting that steering tobacco users to smokeless tobacco is a “free-market” means of reducing the rate of smoking-related diseases. His program is largely funded by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., an ALEC member and manufacturer of Copenhagen and Skoal, among other brands.
ALEC bills itself as an educational organization. Its corporate and ideological members pay tens of thousands of dollars to join. Lawmakers pay $50 a year and are eligible for scholarships to underwrite the cost of traveling, often with their families, to frequent meetings at ritzy destinations.
There, the elected officials are given model legislation to take home and introduce in their statehouses. Over the course of the last two years, some 60 pieces of ALEC-like legislation have been introduced in Minnesota, including a bill very much like the one Rodu’s workshop promoted.
More attractive to youth
In 2011, three Minnesota Republicans introduced a bill that would lower taxes on smokeless tobacco. Cigarettes are taxed by the pack. The bill would have made smokeless tobacco cheaper, and thus more attractive to teens and ‘tweens, by taxing it by weight instead.
Authored by Reps. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville; Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove; and Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, Minnesota House File 1079 died after a first reading. Of the three, Zellers is the only one known to have ties to ALEC.
The ALEC model bill — entitled “Resolution on the Enhancement of Economic Neutrality, Commercial Efficiency, and Fairness in the Taxation of Moist Smokeless Tobacco (MST) Products” — fared better in Wisconsin, where lawmakers got a letter in support from ALEC. Gov. Scott Walker, the guiding force behind other ALEC proposals, such as right to work, shoot-first and voter ID legislation, vetoed it.
If the new taxing system applied only to old-fashioned chewing tobacco, it’s hard to imagine the push would be as hard. But the days where smokeless tobacco meant a squat puck containing unpalatable dip or snuff are long over.
Nicotine in candy flavors
These days, nicotine delivery systems are much more appealing to youth and much more likely to escape adult attention. There are mints that look like Tic Tacs packaged in tins made to resemble Altoids, candy-flavored blunts that look like fruit leather and gum. Most popular are “snus,” tea-bag-like packets kids suck on.
Most are classified as “moist tobacco,” the product on which the model legislation would lower taxes.
Reached by phone last week, Loon said ALEC had nothing to do with her authorship of the bill, which she said she misunderstood and would not support going forward.
“I was visited by someone who represents one or more brands of smokeless tobacco because of the way the tax law is structured around them,” she said.
She was under the impression she was singled out, she added, because of her earlier support for the “little cigar bill,” an effort to raise taxes on the aforementioned candy-flavored blunts. She supported that legislation both in the interest of tax parity and to make the cigars, which appear identical to cigarettes but are slightly different in ways that mean they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Loon: ‘I absolutely would not support’
“I absolutely would not support promoting smokeless tobacco as an alternative to cigarettes,” said Loon. “I would not be active on that legislation in the future.”
Will other Minnesota lawmakers revive the effort? The subject of a flurry of critical headlines in recent months, ALEC took the new step of not sending members the agenda for last week’s meeting in advance, nor did it publicize the names of members in either the private sector or public office who were expected to attend.
Activists from the left-leaning Madison, Wis.-based Center for Media and Democracy — one of the groups that has done the most to document ALEC’s activities — spent last week in Salt Lake City piecing together the agenda.
From its report: “Other workshops include ‘Municipal Pension Reform’ and ‘Using Non-Addictive Medication in Alternatives to Incarceration,’ and one titled ‘Regulation Without Representation,’ warning of how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ‘has taken on an ardent regulatory agenda that threatens the representative nature of our government.’
“Legislators will also sit alongside corporate lobbyists on ALEC’s task forces to amend and vote on ‘model’ legislation. The Commerce, Insurance, and Economic Development Task Force, for example, will discuss topics like ‘the resurgence of right to work,’ getting rid of licensing restrictions for certain professions, and eliminating federal restrictions on states charging toll fees on roads. The Communications and Information Technology Task Force will discuss ‘the high cost to taxpayers from municipal broadband’ and the Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force ‘will cover the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide’ as well as consider model bills like the Animal Property Protection Act and the Intrastate Coal and Use Act.”
After all that hard work, the center’s sleuths report, select lawmakers had the option of unwinding at an “invitation-only” cigar reception, hosted by one of ALEC’s major tobacco firms.