Va. Legislators Indebted to Tobacco

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By Pete Earley
Sunday, December 21, 2008

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's call for increasing the state tax on cigarettes from 30 cents a pack to 60 cents was long overdue. The nationwide average is $1.19 a pack. Both Maryland and the District levy $2 per pack, and only three states have a lower tax than Virginia. Raising the tax would generate an estimated $148 million a year in badly needed new revenue.

But even before the governor officially proposed the increase Tuesday, House Speaker William J. Howell, Virginia's top Republican lawmaker, pronounced it dead on arrival.

Why?

Tobacco became Virginia's first industry nearly 400 years ago when John Rolfe developed a commercially viable crop and helped rescue the fledgling Jamestown colony. Tobacco leaves are painted on the ceiling of the Capitol. But it is not necessarily tradition that has kept the cigarette tax so low.

Philip Morris USA is the largest producer of cigarettes in the nation, controlling a little more than half the market. A division of the Altria Group, Philip Morris moved its headquarters from New York City to Henrico County in 2004, and it remains one of Virginia's largest employers. The Altria Group also contributes more money to political campaigns than any other tobacco company.

On its Web site, Altria identifies the recipients of the nearly $7 million doled out by its political action committee in 2008. (That figure does not include contributions by individual corporate officials.) The tobacco giant contributed cash to 28 of Virginia's 40 senators and 85 of its 100 House of Delegates members.

A look at who pocketed the contributions helps explain why Kaine's modest proposal could be doomed. Both the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Lacey E. Putney (I-Bedford) and its vice chairman, Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), received tobacco funds. But they were hardly alone. Overall, 20 members of the committee took in Altria contributions -- and only four did not.

Altria has also been extremely generous with the House Finance Committee, contributing to 21 of 22 members, including Chairman Harry R. "Bob" Purkey (R-Virginia Beach) and Vice Chairman Robert D. "Bobby" Orrock Sr. (R-Caroline). Altria donated to the campaigns of 18 of the 22 members of the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, including Chairman Hamilton and Vice Chairman Samuel A. Nixon Jr. (R-Chesterfield).

Put bluntly, tobacco contributions helped elect the chairman and vice chairman of all three of these important committees. Only nine of the 67 elected representatives serving on these committees did not get funds from Altria's PAC.

Altria also opened its wallet for Virginia senators, especially members of the Senate Finance Committee. The company's contribution list identifies 11 of 16 committee members as getting funds, including Chairman Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), who also is the Senate president pro tempore.

Northern Virginia's Senate delegation has also been an Altria favorite. Seven of the 12 senators from the region received contributions; it's easier just to list the ones who aren't on Altria's list -- George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), Patricia S. Ticer (D-Alexandria) and Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington). Among Northern Virginia's 26 delegates, 19 are listed as getting Altria money. As with the senators, the ones who didn't were all Democrats. It's Virginia's GOP legislators who have vowed to kill the increase.

According to the American Lung Association, smoking kills 438,000 Americans a year. It is implicated in one in five U.S. deaths. Yet Virginia Del. John M. O'Bannon III (R-Henrico), who is a physician, accepted campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, according to Altria.

Polls done by anti-smoking groups have consistently shown that voters support increased sales taxes on cigarettes, perhaps because most voters don't smoke. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids argues that Kaine's proposal doesn't go far enough. Increasing Virginia's tax to 90 cents per pack would generate $300 million in revenue, but more important, cause a 17.6 percent decrease in smoking by children and prevent 38,200 deaths, the group contends.

If a higher cigarette tax is supported by residents and would help protect children, save lives and generate needed funds to pay for vital state services, then voting for it would appear to be a no-brainer -- except, it seems, to the 113 Virginia politicians whose hands are stuck deep in tobacco's pockets.

Pete Earley is the author of "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness."


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