A fight backed by hospitals and tobacco companies over an initiative that will appear on Montana ballots this November has amassed more than $2 million.
Ballot Initiative 185 asks voters to raise taxes on all tobacco products, and for the first time tax e-cigarettes and vaping products, to fund health programs, including the state’s Medicaid expansion.
If approved, the measure would also make permanent the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which is set to expire next year.
In a press conference Wednesday, Amanda Cahill, the Montana government relations director for the American Heart Association, railed against the tobacco industry for opposing I-185.
“Big tobacco corporations have been telling us lies for decades, but we can fight back,” Cahill said.
The largest backers in support of the I-185 campaign are the Montana Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, and Families USA, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit health advocacy organization.
Most major hospitals in the state have also chipped into the cause. Industry leaders say the reduction of uninsured people in Montana as a result of the Medicaid program is increasing hospital profitability.
Since Montana lawmakers voted in 2015 to expand Medicaid, 96,000 people in the state have received health coverage under the program.
Both the campaigns for and against I-185 had, as of the end of last month, roughly a million dollars backing their efforts.
The biggest spender on either side is Virginia based Altria Client Services LLC, which according to its website owns some of the market leaders in the U.S. tobacco industry, like Marlboro cigarettes, Copenhagen chew and Black & Mild cigars.
A spokesperson for Altria directed any questions about their spending on this issue to the campaign against I-185, dubbed Montanans Against Tax Hikes.
Chuck Denowh is the group’s spokesperson. He declined to be interviewed, but issued the following statement.
"I-185 is a massive new tax increase that permanently expands Medicaid but does not allocate enough money to pay for it, leaving all Montanans on the hook for tens of million of dollars per year. Montanans Against Tax Hikes plans to run a campaign and make sure voters understand why they should reject I-185."
Denowh declined to discuss the Montanas Against Tax Hikes campaign beyond his statement.
While big names in the tobacco industry are funding nearly all of the I-185 opposition, vape and e-cigarette shops in Montana also want to block it.
Deanna Marshal is co-owner of Freedom Vapes and a member of the Montana Smoke Free Association.
“I believe that we need help for people who need health care, but it should not be one industry paying for it. Especially an industry where most of the people are economically lower end.”
Marshal says if I-185 passes, the new tax on vape products and e-cigarettes could be devastating to her business and ones like it. The new tax would be 83 percent of a product's wholesale price.
I-185 also proposes increasing taxes on cigarette packs and cans of chew to fund the continuation of Medicaid expansion, and other health care programs.