How an American tobacco giant is quietly investing big money in hundreds of political races across the nation
By Madison Hall and Walt Hickey, Insider
May 21- Menthol in cigarettes and flavored cigars could soon be outlawed, as the US Food and Drug Administration and state legislatures carefully prepare to regulate or legislate them into history.
But one tobacco giant — Reynolds American — is actively spreading millions of dollars to hundreds of state-level political candidates and political action committees, according to an internal corporate governance document reviewed by Insider.
Reynolds American, best known for brands such as Newport and Camel cigarettes, spread nearly $6 million among more than 800 state-level political candidates, political action committees, and ballot initiative committees during 2021, an analysis of the document indicates.
In all, Reynolds American directly donated to candidates and committees in 31 states plus the District of Columbia, according to its document. Florida, California, Georgia, and New Jersey were among Reynolds American’s top targets.
Reynolds American also donated an additional $3.84 million to federal-level political committees and organizations, the vast majority going to Republican-aligned groups.
Itself owned by British American Tobacco, Reynolds American is the parent company of the American Snuff Company, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which produces the globally popular Newport and Camel cigarettes. Newport is one of the leading menthol cigarette brands in the country.
Though not legally obligated to, Reynolds American compiles an annual list of political contributions across federal- and state-level politics.
The company’s list of contributions is not perfect — the document contains some misspellings and at least once mixed up a candidate’s party affiliation. Reynolds American’s document states it made a campaign contribution to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, but Grisham’s office told Insider the governor received no such contribution, which state campaign finance filings support.
But the data provides a glimpse into how the nation’s second-largest tobacco company is attempting to broadly influence lawmakers and otherwise participate in low-profile elections that may nevertheless have notable policy implications for companies that market smoking products.
Reynolds American favored conservatives in its political giving, with more than 80% of its 2021 contributions — more than $5 million — going to Republican candidates and committees. Democrats and Democrat-aligned committees, however, received less than $700,000 altogether from Reynolds American.
Reynolds American did not respond to Insider’s several requests for comment.
But Reynolds American, in a posting on its website, explained its political donations are “consistent with the interests of their businesses” and guiding principles and beliefs. Reynolds American says it considers several factors when donating to a politician, including geography and whether a politician serves on committees overlapping with the tobacco industry’s interests.
“Contributions must be lawful, and in the interests of the organization rather than the individual interests of any employee, officer, or director,” the website says. “All proposed corporate contributions go through a review process to ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and to determine that they are in the best interests of the RAI companies.”
Insider reached out to more than 25 of the candidates who received money from Reynolds American, but none were willing to speak on the record about their Reynolds American-related contributions.
Much at stake for Big Tobacco
In 2021, the FDA announced its intention to prevent “future generations of smokers” by banning menthol cigarettes, flavored cigars, and other similar products. And recently, in April 2022, the FDA proposed a set of rules and product standards that would ban menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars from hitting the shelves.
“The proposed rules would help prevent children from becoming the next generation of smokers and help adult smokers quit,” said Xavier Becerra, the Health and Human Services secretary.
Tobacco companies have not sat idle. Reynolds American alone has spent $2.56 million to lobby the federal government in 2021 and is on pace to spend $2.8 million in lobbying, according to federal congressional lobbying data compiled by nonpartisan research organization OpenSecrets.
Cathy Callaway, the senior director of prevention for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s state and local campaigns team, told Insider that the company’s focus on Washington, DC, best exemplifies the organization’s grip on the federal government.
“The DC numbers, to me, speaks to the investments they’re making in Congress, probably around FDA regulation of tobacco products and certainly the recent rule that was proposed by FDA to end the sale of, or to prohibit menthol and flavored cigars.”
There’s also plenty of tobacco-related action at the state level.
Matt Myers, the president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told Insider that many of the states where Reynolds American is contributing political money to are ones that have recently introduced or are discussing restrictions on tobacco products.
While Reynolds American and its parent company, British American Tobacco, have both pledged to reduce “the health impact of our business” and cut down on combustible products, they also fight against lawmakers trying to codify anti-tobacco and vaping measures, he said.
“Reynolds claims that it’s no longer opposing tobacco control measures because it too supports a smoke-free future, but its political giving tells a completely different story,” Myers said. “Its giving is directed towards individuals and places that in recent years have been considering restrictions on menthol cigarettes.”
In late 2020, California lawmakers agreed to institute a ban on flavored tobacco products with Senate Bill 793. Tobacco companies, including Reynolds American and affiliates, have since donated more than $20 million dollars to the California Coalition for Fairness, which opposes the legislature’s decision and succeeded in getting the issue of flavored tobacco onto the ballot for the 2022 midterm elections. This delayed the implementation of the California legislature’s law.
In addition to donating to the coalition, Reynolds American’s political spending document reveals extensive contributions to the campaigns of individual lawmakers across California, donating $161,500 to the candidates in 2021 alone, more than two-thirds of which went to Republican candidates. In all, Reynolds American donated to 34 candidates in California in 2021. That’s 28%, or more than a quarter, of all of the seats in the state legislature.
Both Myers and Callaway told Insider that Reynolds American has historically been a supporter of tobacco “preemption” laws, or working with state governments to pass legislation making it harder for local communities from implementing their own tobacco control legislation.
Florida — Reynolds American’s second most popular target for political contributions in 2021, according to its own data — is an example of a state that passed legislation in 2021 preventing local communities from changing the minimum age of using and possessing tobacco as well as regulating the marketing and sale of the product.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis received $25,000 from Reynolds American in March 2021, just two months before signing it into law in May.
Then, seven months later, DeSantis received an additional $25,000 from the tobacco giant. The company also donated $50,000 to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s campaign in several increments in late 2021 and early 2022.
Despite assurances from the company that it’s moving away from combustible tobacco products, Myers said the company’s political spending is simply “business as usual.”
“They’ve always used giving to prevent meaningful tobacco control legislation from passing, and this demonstrates that there has been no decrease in that whatsoever,” he said.