GOP efforts to limit ballot measures protecting abortion build on similar efforts by Big Tobacco in the 1980s

On April 23, 2023 the New York Times published an extensive description of how Republican states are trying to limit access to ballot initiatives that pro-choice groups have been using to protect abortion access.

Such efforts are not new. After public health advocates started using the initiative process to pass tobacco control measures, including tobacco taxes, state tobacco control programs and smokefree laws in the 1980s, the tobacco companies organized efforts to make it harder to qualify and pass initiatives and easier for legislatures (which the tobacco companies controlled) to block initiatives.

Elizabeth Laposata, Allison Kennedy and I published When tobacco targets direct democracy in 2014 describing this process. While the industry was not successful, the earlier experience should inform current debates. In addition, I would not be surprised to find Big Tobacco (and other special interests) lurking in the shadows helping the anti-abortion forces undermine direct democracy.

Here is the abstract:

“Tobacco control advocates began to use ballot initiatives to enact tobacco control measures in the late 1970s. In response, the tobacco industry worked for over two decades to change laws governing initiative and referendum processes to prevent passage of such measures. In 1981 the tobacco industry’s political lobbying arm, the Tobacco Institute, created a front group that presented itself as a neutral initiative research clearinghouse to effect changes in state initiative and referenda laws. In 1990 the Tobacco Institute began creating an in-house team and worked with third-party groups to try to change state initiative laws. While the industry ultimately abandoned both efforts when neither achieved immediate success, over time the industry’s goals have penetrated legitimate discourse on the initiative and referendum process in the United States, and many specific ideas it advocated have garnered mainstream support. Direct democracy advocates, as well as public health advocates and policy makers, need to understand the tobacco industry’s goals (which other industries adopted) of limiting the direct democracy process to ensure that any changes do not inadvertently increase the power of the special interests that direct democracy was developed to counterbalance.”

The full citation is: Laposata E, Kennedy AP, Glantz SA. When tobacco targets direct democracy. J Health Polit Policy Law. 2014 Jun;39(3):537-64. doi: 10.1215/03616878-2682603. Epub 2014 Mar 6. PMID: 24603083; PMCID: PMC4040295. It is available here.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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