What's that smell? Big tobacco's move on vaping | Arkansas Blog

Friday, April 3, 2015

What's that smell? Big tobacco's move on vaping

Posted By on Fri, Apr 3, 2015 at 12:56 PM

It'll take months to dredge up all the dirty tricks and special interest legislation run through the legislature, particularly in the waning, crazy hours. Yesterday, I mentioned the Bruce Hawkins' legislation to prevent dozens of mesothelioma victims from suing Crown Cork and Seal for asbestos damage done by products manufactured by a company Crown Cork had bought.

Today, look at what Big Tobacco wrought, with the help of Sen. Eddie Joe Williams and lobbyist Gilbert Baker, to name a couple.

SB 978, sponsored by Williams, was filed as a shell bill late in the session, March 9. The day of the first Senate commitee hearing on the bill, March 24, nine days before the end of the session, a 37-page amendment was introduced. Study? Who needs study? 27 hours after the amendment was added, the bill had passed the Senate, with emergency clause. It took a few days longer in the House, but by March 31 the deed was done and the bill was delivered to the governor on April Fool's Day, though without the emergency clause. Big work in a week and with scant press notice, given other issues that occupied attention.

This is a Big Tobacco bill to regulate "vaping," or smokeless cigarettes. Industry and Republicans hate regulation except when the regulations protect and enhance special interests, like tobacco companies. Page after page details rules for wholesalers and retailers and various licensing fees.

And note  this:

Preemption for vapor products, alternative nicotine products, and e-liquid products.

This subchapter and the rules and other actions of the Arkansas Tobacco Control Board shall preempt the enactment and enforcement of any county, municipal or other location regulation of the manufacture, sale, storage or distribution of vapor products or alternative nicotine products that is more restrictive than this act or the rules promulgated by the board.

Got it? Again: Republicans like local control except when they don't. Does this pre-empt local regulation of where vaping may be done? The bill, as to use, mentions only prohibitions in schools, child care or health care facilities. But that looks like a pretty broad local exemption. (UPDATE: I'm informed it's only a pre-emption on efforts to regulate sale, not use. I've also since learned of heavy opposition to this from the non-tobacco elements of the vaping industry, about all the ways the bill will make their pastime more expensive.)

There's still time for the cities and counties to act, absent an emergency clause, in the 90 days after the legislature adjourns in May.

Now for some connections. Gilbert Baker was among the lobbyists who pushed this legislation, Baker on behalf of client Reynolds Tobacco. National Review explains how big tobacco belatedly joined the vaping bandwagon, in part with efforts to make vaping as expensive and as regulated as — and thus not nearly so competitive with — regular tobacco.

Baker is the former state senator who was a campaign contribution bagman for people like now defrocked Judge Mike Maggio, Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood and many others, particularly in his home of Faulkner County. He helped put Michael Morton's nursing home money into many races, including some suspect PACs that poured money into Maggio's race just as he was about to reduce a verdict against a Morton nursing home by $4.2 million. Maggio has pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe arranged by an unnamed party on behalf of another unnamed party to reduce a court judgment, If you get the drift. Only Maggio has been charged with a crime.

Who else did Morton's money reach? He gave $5,000 to the PAC of Eddie Joe Williams, the vaping bill sponsor. His PAC supports other candidates. Williams was also host for a fund-raiser for a Faulkner County candidate backed by, who else?, Gilbert Baker.

A small and interconnected world is our Arkansas. A reliable source puts Baker in the thick of this particular bill, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn others played roles. Take the Mullenix lobbying firm, which laundered the money that paid for the big soirees honoring House and Senate leaders toward the end of the session and occasionally slopped legislators through "planned activities" for legislative committees. Its clients include Altria, another big tobacco player. Altria gave at least 60 campaign contributions to Arkansas legislative candidates in 2014, from $250 to the maximum $2,000. Reynolds gve Eddie Joe Williams PAC $5,000 in both 2013 and 2014.

PS — Baker remains a tenured faculty member at UCA, but is currently on an unpaid leave of absence.

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