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Legislators out-of-touch with voters on tobacco issues

by Amanda Cahill and Kristin Page-Nei
| April 24, 2021 12:00 AM

An overwhelming number of Montana voters are concerned about tobacco use. So why do some members of the Montana Legislature continue to push bills on behalf of tobacco companies and against the wishes and health of Montanans?

For example, Senate Bill 398, sponsored by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, actually makes it easier for the tobacco industry to hook our kids and harder for Montana communities to protect them.

Montana is facing an epidemic of youth e-cigarette use. The number of Montana high school students regularly using e-cigarettes rose 263% between 2017 and 2019. Five times more youth than adults in our state use these addictive products. Yet, the aim of SB 398 is to prevent Montana communities from putting any restrictions on the sale of e-cigarettes, including the fruit- and candy-flavored products that are so successful in attracting and addicting our kids. Big Tobacco should not enjoy more protection than our children.

Other bills this session have included proposals to overturn locally passed clean indoor air protections, allow cigar smoking in nearly any bar or restaurant, and permit vaping in any public space.

Big Tobacco companies like Altria, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris love ideas like these. But do Montanans agree? Not so much, according to a new poll funded by the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. In fact, the findings indicate that some of our legislators are completely out of touch.

Findings show that nearly three in four Montanans are concerned about tobacco use, with 40 percent saying they are “very concerned.” Support for the Montana Clean Indoor Air Act, meanwhile, stands at an extraordinary 89 percent, and 81 percent favor strengthening this state act to include e-cigarettes.

It’s fortunate, given these findings, that legislators tabled House Bill 137, sponsored by vape store owner Rep. Ron Marshall. This bill would have allowed the use of e-cigarettes in all public indoor spaces, and would have overturned local policies in 11 communities where citizens worked to include e-cigarettes in their local clean indoor policies.

It’s also encouraging that legislators tabled House Bill 285, which would’ve allowed nearly any bar or restaurant to become a “cigar bar.” The poll shows that Montana voters reject allowing cigar smoking in bars by a margin of almost four to one (77 percent).

Sen. Ellsworth’s also bill runs contrary to what Montana voters want. SB 398 would take away communities’ freedom to make local decisions to protect kids, but nearly three-quarters of voters (74 percent) support local solutions, saying that local communities should be able to set and keep standards in place regarding tobacco.

The majority of Montanans, it turns out, are far more interested in preventing kids from using tobacco and helping current users quit than in making it easier for Big Tobacco to addict people. An astounding 92 percent of voters support continuing to use funds from the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement to support our state’s highly successful tobacco use and prevention program, which has helped thousands of Montanans stop smoking. Three-quarters of Montanans say this money should solely be used to fight problems with tobacco, not other substances.

If legislators truly view themselves as representatives of Montana’s citizens, they will listen to what voters from across the political spectrum want, not to tobacco companies such as Altria, maker of Marlboro and co-owner of Juul, which has been lobbying inside the Capitol this session. Legislators still have a chance to kill SB 398 and stand up for Montana kids. Listen to the voters and do the right thing.

Amanda Cahill is Montana government relations manager for the American Heart Association; Kristin Page-Nei is Montana government relations director for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.