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Smoking Showdown: Public Health Vs. Private Rights (and Profits) in a Multistate Battle in 2006

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As the old saying goes, "One person's right to smoke ends where another's nose begins." In 2005 and 2006, voters in seven states decided 11 ballot measures aimed at broadening the distance between the smoke and the nose with higher tobacco taxes or limits on public smoking.

Additionally, two more states - Florida and Idaho - decided measures that earmarked tobacco settlement funds.

The battle over tobacco taxation and restriction was not cheap. As health groups squared off with Big Tobacco in those seven states - Arizona, California, Missouri, Ohio, Nevada, South Dakota and Washington - the total cost rose to $125 million. Ultimately, voters in five of the seven states passed measures that increased restrictions on public smoking and/or increased tobacco taxation. The health coalitions claimed solid majorities in
Arizona, Ohio, South Dakota and Washington, and won narrowly in Nevada. Tobacco won by thin margins in Missouri and California.

Tobacco companies concentrated their efforts in California; more than two-thirds of the money Big Tobacco contributed went to committees in that state. With its large population and a proposal for a whopping $2.60 per pack tax increase on the table, tobacco companies had a lot at stake. Anti-tobacco groups responded by increasing their contributions in that state as well, but were outspent by a ratio of nearly 4-to-1.

In most states, the same players appeared again and again. On the side of public health - physical and fiscal - were coalitions funded mostly by hospitals, hospital associations, Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Lung Association, and the American Heart Association. Couching the issue in terms of an individual's right of self-determination and conservative tax policy were groups bankrolled by tobacco manufacturers RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris, Altria, the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, drinking and/or gaming establishments, and tobacco sellers.