Fighting Tobacco Taxes

Reynolds launches to ease battle for retailers, other opponents

Editor's Note: This is the second of two reports stemming from an interview this week between officials from Reynolds American and CSP Daily News.Click here to read yesterday's story on FDA regulation of tobacco. For opponents—namely c-store operators, wholesalers and tobacco makers—the SCHIP bill became [image-nocss] their Normandy.

NEW YORK-- Arm now or face defeat. A proposal to jump the federal excise tax on tobacco to underwrite expansion of the state Children Health Insurance Program—a noble program by all accounts—seemed ready to coast to victory less than a year ago. As critics foamed at the prospects of raising federal taxes by 61 cents to $1 per cigarette pack, one opponent turned to the web to rally on-the-fence lawmakers to vote against the measure. R.J. Reynolds launched a website that enabled likeminded opponents to easily contact their elected officials to voice objections.

"What happened last year between June and December is we had over 30,000 visits to this site and it generated over 120,000 contacts to elected officials," said David Riser, vice president of government relations and trade marketing at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

Riser met this week with CSP Daily News and was joined by Steve Kottak and Frank Lester, respectively, director of communication and director of legislative policy and advocacy for Reynolds American Inc.

While no one is looking to credit this grassroots effort for solely sinking the proposed tax increase, for Reynolds, the lesson was a momentous one about the power of the web.

Now, the tobacco maker has launched a new website called The site, run by Kottak, Lester and fellow Reynolds American communications official John Singleton, is a convenient platform for retailers, wholesalers and other interested parties to discuss all bills that propose to raise federal or state taxes across the country. The user-friendly website features states with actual tax-increase proposals while allowing users to track their own states. In addition, it provides key highlights of the bill and lets the user find his or her state representative to contact by email.

"There are two important pieces to note on this," Riser said. "The first would be that retailers and wholesalers, just like all of us, are nonstop running their business. They don't have much time, even though they are politically engaged. We want them to have a resource that provides information, heightens awareness very quickly and then [provides] a resource to contact elected officials in less than 3 minutes."

"Wouldn't three minutes be worth the time to help protect your livelihood?" Riser added. "That's what we're trying to do here."

For instance, when clicking on Massachusetts, the user is greeted with the following in blaring headlines: "Cigarette Taxes in Massachusetts." It is followed with, "ALERT: Right now, politicians in Massachusetts want to increase the cigarette tax by up to $1.51 per pack. Now is the time to take action. Contact your elected officials today and make your voice heard."

The warning is followed by a link that lets the user contact his or her state representative in both the state house and senate.

In another example, Kottak clicked through to New York. In attention to legislative news, the webpage features demographic profiles of New York smokers, which underscores the fact that most smokers in the Empire State are from low- and moderate-income households.

"This is the type of information retailers need to speak out on [higher taxes]," Kottak said. "We're giving them the tax facts. For example, in fiscal year '07, New York smokers paid over $2 billion in cigarette sales.… We think this is useful information."

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