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Measure 50 Supporters Want To Send Message To Tobacco Companies

As the November election approaches, Oregon’s airwaves are filling up with commercials. You might have already noticed ads for and against Measure 50. It aims to pay for the healthcare of kids and poorer Oregonians by increasing taxes on cigarettes — by 85 cents a pack.

Tobacco interests are on track to set a record for advertising spending against an Oregon initiative. And, as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, the American Lung Association, Heart Association, Cancer Society and others fought back Tuesday.

So far, the likes of R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have spent four and a half million dollars on TV, print and radio ads. They paint Measure 50 as a massive cash grab by politicians and special interests.

Commercial: “Measure 50 to increase Oregon’s tobacco tax, sounds like a good idea, but is it? 50 is supported by HMO’s and health insurers wanting to re-write Oregon’s constitution to enrich themselves. It locks massive new spending into law…."

In response the Healthy Kids Campaign, whose membership reads like a Who’s Who of Oregon health organizations, is running their own ads.

Commercial: “Big tobacco is at it again, lying about Measure 50, the healthy kids initiative. The Oregonian calls their ads utterly untrue, outright false…."

Each side puts its own spin on the measure, but one tobacco commercial has prompted particular outrage. It features a pie chart with huge chunks highlighted – money it says won’t be used for the intended purposes.

Commercial: “They say it’s to fund the healthy kids program, but look where the money goes.   Over 70 percent of the funds from the new tax would not go to fund the healthy kids program, which is supposed to be the measure’s main purpose…."

Cathy Kaufman: “That statement could not be farther from the truth and in fact, is the opposite of the truth.”

Cathy Kaufman is the director of Measure 50 support group Healthy Kids Oregon.

Cathy Kaufman: “Over 70 percent of the revenue from the increased cigarette tax, goes to fund the healthy kids program. It’s clearly stated in the legislative fiscal report, which tobacco claims is their source. And it’s clearly stated in everything written about the healthy kids plan. So there’s no disputing that. Tobacco is playing fast and loose with the numbers. They’re trying to insinuate because all of the money for healthy kids, can’t be spent within the first year because it’s going to take a little while to get every kid enrolled, that somehow that money isn’t for healthy kids, and that is blatantly false.”

The ad was run by a group called ‘Oregonians Against a Blank Check,’ which is funded by R.J. Reynolds.  J.L. Wilson is the group’s spokesman and he defends the numbers.

J.L. Wilson: “The legislature creates a healthy kids funds, and puts a bunch of money in it. But that title is misleading because the money in the healthy kids fund doesn’t even go to healthy kids. And I’ll give you an example, there’s $25 million in the healthy kids funds that goes for the Oregon Health Plan standard expansion, which doesn’t serve a single child.”

His point is that the money goes to healthcare, but not exclusively to kids healthcare.

The official ballot title, however, doesn’t say the money is exclusively for kids. A ‘Yes’ vote would also “dedicate funds to…low-income adults and medically underserved Oregonians….”

To battle all the ‘No on 50’ ads, the Healthy Kids group is appealing to Oregonians to perform three ‘clicks.’

Cathy Kaufman: “Click the TV or radio off, click onto our website, and click again to send a postcard, directly to Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds telling them that our kids matter more than their profits. Butt out of Oregon.”

As the war of the airwaves continues there are a few other details the conscientious voter might want to keep in mind. The tax would make Oregon’s cigarettes the third most expensive in the nation – behind New Jersey and Rhode Island. And there is some concern that such a big jump in prices might cut sales so much, the expected taxes might not materialize.

Thomas Briant, the director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, has other concerns too.

Thomas Briant: “What we have found is that smokers look for less expensive alternatives. Three sources specifically. First, Native American reservations have lower-priced cigarettes, second, the internet is a huge vehicle for consumers to buy cigarettes at very low, or no state tax at all. And third, we have found that in many states that have high tax rates, black market or illegal cigarettes are being sold. It’ll also result in more robberies and thefts at your local stores, because cigarettes become such a high priced commodity.”

On the other side, health organizations point to Oregon fiscal office studies that predict cigarette tax revenues will increase — not fall — because of Measure 50.

Courtni Dresser of the American Cancer Society says it's also important to know how many medicaid dollars are spent in Oregon on tobacco related illnesses. She says that stands at about $280 million.

Courtni Dresser: “And you’re talking about heart disease, lung disease, lung cancers, other cancers, asthma, emphazema, there’s hundreds of illnesses that can occur from tobacco use that we will see a cost savings from as we protect people from starting.”

Oregonians will get their say on the measure November 6th.

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