In the past month, Big Tobacco has waged monetary war in a Colorado campaign to increase the cigarette tax by $1.75 per pack.
Altria Client Services, the Virginia-based firm that controls Philip Morris USA, the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. and cigar manufacturer John Middleton, bolstered the "No on Amendment 72" coalition with a pair of $5 million donations.
While proponents of the proposed amendment to the state constitution say the tax hike will help keep kids from smoking and tobacco use, the organization pushing against the increase says the measure simply does not belong in the state constitution.
"There's no way to change it without doing another statewide vote of the people," said Michelle Lyng, a spokeswoman for No on Amendment 72.
According to campaign finance reports posted on the Colorado secretary of state's website, Altria gave Lyng's coalition $5.03 million on Sept. 2 and followed that with another donation of $5.037 million on Sept. 21. Those donations by the tobacco giant account for all monetary contributions given to No on Amendment 72.
In contrast, the group Campaign for a Healthy Colorado that is leading the charge for the tax increase has raised just under $1.7 million in monetary contributions, coming from several sources. The tax hike proposed by a group of medical professionals in reaction to 2015's increase in the state's cigarette sales would push cigarette tax in Colorado from 84 cents per pack to $2.59 beginning Jan. 1, 2017.
Dr. Kim Dulaney, a cardiologist and board president of the American Heart Association in Colorado Springs, and Greg Raymond, a regional vice president of Children's Hospital Colorado, each said the main focus of Amendment 72 is to prevent more kids from smoking.
"Smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in Colorado," Dulaney said, noting that heart disease leads the way followed by emphysema and lung cancer.
The $1.75 tax increase per pack would move Colorado from the 38th-highest cigarette tax rate in the United States to 11th on the list, she said.
"What we've seen in states where taxes are really high like New York ($4.35 per pack) is that smoking rates have decreased," Dulaney said.
Colorado last raised its cigarette and tobacco tax in 2004, bumping the rate from 20 to 84 cents a pack. According to the state Department of Public Health and Environment, cigarette sales dropped from 300 million packs in 2004 to 226.7 million the next year. There was a declining trend for the next decade until sales jumped by 1.1 million packs from 2014 to 2015, prompting the push for Amendment 72.
If passed, the amendment would add a sub-section to Article X, Section 21 of the Colorado Constitution. The estimated $315 million from the tax hike would go to tobacco education and prevention, tobacco-related health research, veterans' programs that would include physical and behavioral health, child and adolescent behavioral health programs, new technologies and education repayment for health-care professionals.
Opponents of Amendment 72 say that the wording of the tax revenue allocations is too broad. Altria spokesman David Sutton said in an email Wednesday that the measure would "place a $315 million per year blank check in the Colorado Constitution with little accountability to taxpayers."
"Will the money go to pet projects?" Lyng asked. "Most of the revenue is designated to programs that haven't been determined yet."