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Big Tobacco Fights Back

At the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, fifth graders take off their coats and gather around instructor Mark Hollicker.

Mark Hollicker: You guys ready to get started today?

Students: Yeah!

Mark Hollicker: All right! Then if you guys will follow me into the galleries, let's get started.

It's educational programming like this that Cuyahoga County leaders expected to highlight as they lobbied voters to support a thirty-cents-a-pack tax for the arts. If approved, Issue 18 will provide about $20 million annually in grants to arts organizations, including ideastream. But what supporters hadn't expected was the opposition.

Bill Phelps: I'm Bill Phelps with Philip Morris USA.

Phelps flew in three weeks ago from Richmond, Virginia to talk to media about how the country's largest tobacco company is providing help to county retailers.

Bill Phelps: If they are opposed to the initiative and want to share that information with their customers, we are providing materials to them that they can display in their stores.

Campaign finance documents show Philip Morris has spent $45,000 to do this in Cuyahoga County. That's chump change to a tobacco giant like Philip Morris. But political analysts like John Matsusaka at the University of Southern California say it's a perfect example of how far Big Tobacco is willing to go this year to fight tobacco bans and cigarette taxes around the country.

John Matsusaka: They're feeling that they really need to draw a line in the sand here and fight some of these, see if they can win them and even if they don't win them, they're trying to send a signal that if anyone wants to do this in the future then you're at least going to have to pay a lot of money to fight them.

Three states have smoking bans on the ballot backed by the American Cancer Society and other health groups. And in each state, they all have to compete against rival smoking bans backed by the tobacco and alcohol industries. In Ohio, Issue 5 would ban smoking in public places. Smokefree Ohio Co-chair Tracy Sabetta says she has to wage a dual campaign: get voters behind Issue 5 and educate them about the tobacco-industry supported Issue 4.

Tracy Sabetta: You will never see a vote yes without a vote no because even if both issues pass, only Issue 4 will become law and it would trump Issue 5.

Tobacco giant RJ Reynolds won't say how much they're spending here in Ohio. Issue 4's Smoke Less Ohio chair has said the North Carolina cigarette maker is their major supporter. Campaign finance records show Smoke Less Ohio has spent and raised $3.4 million dollars so far. Their opponents have raised $900,000 dollars. RJ Reynolds spokesman Craig Fishel.

Craig Fishel: This is the first year that we have done it to this degree where, in addition to Ohio, we're also working on a no-smoking ban initiative in Arizona and then tax initiatives in Missouri and California.

RJ Reynolds has said it will spend $40 million in these four states. In California alone, tobacco companies have spent $60 million to fight a large cigarette tax on the ballot. Fishel admits profits are important, but says RJ Reynolds is supporting smokers rights.

Craig Fishel: Obviously the company does have an interest in it because these our are customers.

And that's a fight appreciated by smokers like Mickey Walters. She says she's smoked for 23 years and now spends $38 a week to support her habit.

Mickey Walters: I'm tired of paying for everything in the city of Cleveland. I'm tired of smokers being penalized.

Supporters of Cuyahoga County's proposed cigarette tax have spent about a million dollars trying to reach voters, including smokers. Big donors include arts organizations like the Playhouse Square Foundation. State Senator Eric Fingerhut is heading the campaign. The Shaker Heights democrat calls opposition from Philip Morris an outside distraction.

Eric Fingerhut: We have a world class arts and culture community, and it brings in a billion dollars a year in economic activity and supports 3,000 good paying jobs. That's what I'd like to be talking about, but it looks like I'm probably going to have to talk about Philip Morris. (laughs)

The question now is how voters will respond to Big Tobacco's public efforts and whether their campaign cash will pay off on election day. I'm Mhari Saito, 90.3.