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March 2009 – Decline in Big Tobacco Political Donations Seen

Data Highlight: Tobacco Money in NC Politics

Decline in Tobacco Industry Donations and Lobbying Seen

March 27, 2009

Big Tobacco’s starring role in North Carolina political culture has been declining for more than a decade, as evidenced by its reduced investments in state political campaigns, by its smaller share of the Tar Heel economy, and by the increasing popularity of legislation to raise cigarette taxes and ban smoking in one environment after another.

In the past dozen years, political contributions from the tobacco industry have dropped dramatically, both at the federal level and in North Carolina, according to an analysis of data by Democracy North Carolina.

In North Carolina, contributions from the political action committees (PACs) of Reynolds America, the Altria Group (Philip Morris), and Lorillard Tobacco to state campaigns have declined from $163,000 in the 1995-1996 election to $129,000 in 2007-2008.

At the federal level the decline of Big Tobacco has been even sharper, particularly with the end of large “soft money” contributions made directly from the corporations to the federal parties. Donations from all tobacco companies and their PACs declined from a historic high of $9.9 million in 1995-1996 ($3.0 million from the PACs) to $2.6 million in 2003-2004, then down to $2.3 million in 2007-2008. In the 1995-96 period, the industry poured $6.9 million in large, “soft money” donations to the federal parties, but those donations stopped in 2003 under the McCain-Feingold law.

Big Tobacco still has plenty of cash to throw around, especially on matters involving taxation. While political donations declined, the industry has increased its investment in state and local fights against ballot measures for higher cigarette taxes or restrictions on smoking. The flurry of spending by tobacco interests peaked at $90 million in 2006, when Reynolds America spent $46.8 million and Altria spent $36.3 on referenda battles in eight states, with mixed results, according to a report by the National Institute on Money in State Politics

In North Carolina, disclosure reports required by a new ethics law reveal that Reynolds America spent $81,937 in 2007 to generate “grassroots” calls to state legislators against the proposed smoking ban in restaurants and other perceived anti-tobacco measures. Lorillard Tobacco Company disclosed spending $68,500 on “solicitation of others to lobby” for its causes. (Altria shows no such reportable expenditures.) The two-company total for grassroots lobbying of $150,487 exceeds the PAC donations of the tobacco companies in the 2007-2008 election cycle, illustrating the emphasis on public relations and issue lobbying rather than direct campaign donations.

During the 2007-2008 biennium, Reynolds America, Altria Group, and Lorillard Tobacco paid eight lobbyists a total of $303,390 in addition to their grassroots lobbying and other expenses, for total reportable lobbying expenditures of $471,101 during those two years.

Reports for 2009 do not yet indicate the level of the industry’s spending for lobbying in North Carolina. (Note: The contribution numbers here do not include political contributions from tobacco executives, just donations the PACs and the companies.)

Sources: Company campaign and lobbying disclosure reports, State Board of Elections, Federal Elections Commission, NC Secretary of State and Center for Responsive Politics.