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Tobacco money

The effort to improve Montana health care by raising tobacco taxes has ignited the most expensive ballot initiative campaign in the state’s history. It’s a lopsided spending contest.

Big Tobacco has poured more than $12.3 million into a campaign to defeat the Initiative 185 on the Nov. 6 ballot. About $12 million of that money — loans, cash and in-kind support — has come from Altria Client Services, a Washington, D.C., entity that represents Philip Morris USA. Reynolds American Inc. contributed a quarter million dollars. The tobacco companies are bankrolling a political committee named “Montanans Against Tax Hikes — No on I-185.”

What about the other side? Who is funding Healthy Montana for I-185?

Contributors of cash or in-kind donations include committees formed by: AARP Montana, American Cancer Society Action Network, Benefis Health Systems of Great Falls, Kalispell Regional Medical Center, Montana Medical Association, Montana Budget and Policy Center, Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Primary Care Association, Montana Women Vote, Providence St. Patrick Hospital, SCL Health Montana (which operates St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, St. James in Butte and Holy Rosary in Miles City), Tobacco Free Kids Action Fund, Montana public employee and caregiver unions.

The largest Healthy Montana contributor is the Montana Hospital Association’s incidental political committee with $3.5 million. In September, the MHA committee received donations from 11 Montana hospitals, including St. Vincent, Billings Clinic, St. Peter’s in Helena, Sheridan Memorial in Scobey, Shodair Children’s in Helena, Providence St. Patrick in Missoula, Northern Rockies in Cut Bank, Rosebud Health Care in Forsyth, Barrett Hospital in Dillon and Clark Fork Valley in Plains.

The leaders of these community health centers understand what’s at stake:

  • I-185 would continue Medicaid coverage for about 96,000 low-income Montana adults — coverage that otherwise is set to expire next June 30.
  • Revenue from the proposed higher taxes on tobacco and a tax on e-cigarettes would fund that Medicaid program, along with care Montanans need. I-185 specifically directs new revenue to improve services to elderly and disabled Montanans, to prevent Montana youth from using tobacco and vape products and to new efforts to prevent suicide among U.S. military veterans.
  • Over the past year and a half, Montanans have seen how state budget cuts to programs serving needy children, disabled and elderly adults has disrupted lives, eliminated jobs and left many Montanans with less access to treatment for addiction and mental illnesses as underfunded care providers went out of business or closed rural clinics.

Of course, cigarette manufacturers want to prevent an increase in taxes on their products. I-185 proponents expect that the tax increase will decrease purchases of these products in Montana.

But the increased tax would still net about $74 million a year, according to the fiscal note prepared by the state budget office. That new revenue would be available to address Montana’s health and human service needs — many of which are related to tobacco use.

According to an Associated Press analysis of the latest campaign finance reports, Big Tobacco spent $895,000 a week in September on television, radio and print advertising against I-185. By comparison, sponsors of the initiative have spent an average of $405,000 a week on television ads, AP reported.

When you see those ubiquitous commercials, please remember:

  • Messages bashing I-185 are financed by the makers of cigarettes, chew, e-cigarettes and vape pods.
  • Ads asking for support of I-185 are sponsored by the Montana community hospitals and clinics that take care of us when we are sick or injured.

If you want health care to be available to you and your neighbors when needed, vote for I-185. Don’t buy Big Tobacco’s misleading claims.

Guest opinion: Do you know the facts on I-185?
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