Opinion: Dirty campaign tricks from Big Tobacco?

Marlboro menthol-flavored cigarettes
Is Big Tobacco using dirty tricks to overturn the state’s new ban on flavored tobacco?
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Gathering signatures for petitions has got to be a frustrating gig during a year when it’s dangerous to get within spitting distance of strangers. Head toward someone with a clipboard and you’re likely to be met with trepidation if not open hostility. Who knows where that pen has been?

I imagine this tough job would be made unimaginably more difficult if the petition you are pushing benefits a widely unpopular industry — say, human trafficking or cable TV.

Or, as is the case at this moment, Big Tobacco, which is desperately trying to qualify a referendum for the 2022 ballot to overturn the new state law banning the sale of menthol and other flavored tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Getting 623,212 registered voters to breach social distancing recommendations in order to sign that petition by the Nov. 26 deadline must require a great deal of persistence and money.


And maybe some creativity, too?

Two organizations instrumental in getting flavored tobacco outlawed by the Legislature this summer allege that some signature gatherers are lying to get people to sign the flavored tobacco ban referendum petition. This week, the American Heart Assn. and the Tobacco Free Kids Action Fund sent letters to the California Attorney General and Secretary of State asking for an investigation into “numerous instances of illegal signature-gathering.”

As evidence, they offer a video of a man standing in front of a petition booth in front of a grocery store with that sign that reads “ban vape flavors” and a photo of sign near petitions that makes the same backwards claim. Remember, the new law already bans vape flavors; the point of the referendum is to suspend the ban and put it up for a public vote. A handful of other people reported feeling misled by petition circulators.

A few anecdotes don’t constitute proof of a widespread tactic, however, and a referendum campaign official denied any misrepresentation. Indeed, this may be nothing more than evidence of clueless signature gatherers failing to read, or understand, the particulars of the petition they were hawking.

Nevertheless, I hope authorities do investigate because — haha! — isn’t this exactly the type of diabolical disinformation scheme you’d expect from an industry that lied to the public for decades about the dangers of its addictive product and is now facing a huge hit to its bottom line?

Though traditional cigarette use among teenagers has been on the decline for years, use of flavored tobacco products has risen with the young crowd recently, which is why state lawmakers targeted those products. If the referendum qualifies, then the ban will be put on hold for two years until the next election. That’s two more years of profit from candy-flavored vaping cartridges and menthol cigarettes, and two more years to hook kids on a hazardous substance.

Tobacco companies have invested $15 million so far to qualify this referendum, paying upwards of $8 per signature. It has also sued the state to stop the new law, calling it “overbroad.” If the industry succeeds in repealing the law, or even putting it off for two more years, it will be money well spent.


The moral of this is story is to read every a petition closely before you sign it. This wouldn’t be the first time that the content of a petition was misrepresented to get people to sign it.