Tobacco Education Center

How R.J. Reynolds Mobilized Legislative Opposition (1987)

In 1987 GASP of Colorado and other health groups supported a statewide bill to eliminate smoking in public places and require all restaurants to provide nonsmoking sections. It was the fifth year in a row such a bill had been attempted without success. Senate Bill 65 sponsored by Senator Martha Ezzard passed the Senate and two house committees. Supporters had the votes to get the bill through the third committee but Representative Elwood Gillis of Lamar used a pocket veto to kill the bill. A ballot initiative to correct this and other abuses of political power by state legislators was later passed by the voters (the GAVEL amendment -- Give A Vote to Every Legislator). Gillis's action on this SB 65 was often cited as one of the reasons GAVEL was needed.

Twelve years later an internal RJR memo from Public Issues director Tom L. Ogburn shows that RJ Reynolds spent $21,003 to mail action alerts urging 24,426 smokers in 28 key house districts to write letters opposing the SB 65. The memo reports on costs, who was targeted, the response rate, and the average number of personal letters each legislator received. Legislators, like Representative Bill Owens (now our Governor) cooperated by providing Big Tobacco copies of the letters opposing the bill, according to another memo by Ogburn.

Tom Ogburn Interoffice Correspondence to Larry Bowley July 15, 1987

Colorado activites -

  • We mailed packages to 24,426 smokers in 28 key house districts.
  • 574 smokers responded to our mailing, a 2.4% response rate. The low response rate in comparison to Ohio and Minnesota, reinforces our belief that smokers do not react as strongly to a restriction issue as they do to a tax issue - a pocketbook issue vs. a non-pocketbook issue.
  • Smokers wrote 749 personal letters opposing the bill.
  • Of the total letters written, 473 went to state representatives, 147 went to local newspapers, and 129 to "others," such as the governor and state senators.
  • Each state representative received an average of 17 personal letters, ranging from a low of 6 to a high of 37.
  • Total expense for the direct-mail program was $21,002.60, or $28.04 per contact. The high per-contact cost was due to the low response rate.

Ogburn Correspondence to Larry Bowley May 5, 1987

I just received notice from Colorado that the Clean Air Bill will die in committee. The following quotes are from an article in this morning's Rocky Mountain News.

Anti-Smoking Bill Dies in Committee: Backers Incensed "...Gillis, who chairs the House appropriations committee, said the decision was based on his opposition to the proposal and letters from constituents. Gillis does not smoke."

"Many people see this as a further intrusion into their lives and I support what they are saying," Gillis states of the letters.

The article also refers to the uproar the decision created among the bill supporters.

What is especially pleasing is the fact that we sent letters to 20,000 of our 60,000 partisans in Colorado who are part of our Partisan Project Program asking them to contact their legislators. We also reported the bill in the Regulatory Watch newsletter they received. Their response appears to have provided a rationale for the bill's defeat.

I have attached several letters that were sent to Representative Bill Owens representing the type of responses legislators received.

RJR Didn't Disclose All Lobbying Costs Internal documents indicate that RJ Reynolds spent $21,002.60 on grassroots lobbying opposing Senate Bill 65 by Martha Ezzard in 1987. However, GASP has learned through records in the archives of the Colorado Secretary of State that RJR only reported spending $14,223.01 on this bill according to a report filed by the California firm of Nielsen, Hodgson, Parrinello & Mueller on May 8, 1987. That is $6,779.59 short of the amount the RJR spent according to its own internal documents. All Colorado lobbying entities are required to report expenditures in support or opposition of proposed state legislation to the Secretary of State.