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Smokers: 'We have rights too'

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KAI RYSSDAL: The tobacco industry's spending money to save money this fall. Millions of dollars worth. Hoping it'll keep their sales up after the election. Companies like RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris are fighting smoking bans and cigarette taxes that will be on ballots next week From California to Ohio. In Cleveland, smokers welcome the defense. From WCPN, Mhari Saito reports.


MHARI SAITO: Twenty-six-year-old Rocko Monaco grabs a cigarette outside a convenience store on Cleveland's westside. He and his wife spend $80 a week on their nicotine habits and he's furious about a proposed smoking ban and a 30-cents-a-pack tax for the arts on the county's ballot.
ROCKO MONACO: The only people that they're attacking is the smokers. What about just normal taxes on everything else? It's discrimination, that's the way I feel.

Smoker Mickey Walters agrees.

MICKEY WALTERS: We have rights too, just like nonsmokers. I'm not condemning people that don't smoke, but it's my choice.

Those are messages big tobacco companies say they hear a lot. That's why Philip Morris spokesman Bill Phelps says his company is funding leaflet and smoker-voter registration campaigns in Ohio, Arizona and South Dakota.

BILL PHELPS: We oppose excessive excise tax increases and when we see a proposal that meets that criteria we will make our opposition known.

Nowhere is that fight bigger than in California where Big Tobacco has sunk $60 million to oppose a large cigarette tax on the ballot. John Matsusaka is at the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California. With more smoking issues on the ballot every year, Matsusaka says Big Tobacco seems to have chosen this election season to draw a line in the sand.

JOHN MATSUSAKA: They're trying to send a signal that if anybody wants to try to do this in the future, you're at least going to have to pay a lot of money to fight them.

In Ohio, there are two smoking bans on the ballot. SmokeFree Ohio is supported by the American Cancer Society. RJ Reynolds has spent $5 million promoting an alternative, one it calls more reasonable for smokers. In total, the cigarette maker is spending $40 million in Ohio and three other states this election season. RJ Reynolds spokesman Craig Fishel says his company has to protect its business.

CRAIG FISHEL: Obviously, the company does have an interest in it because, I mean, these are our customers.

The question for political watchers around the country is whether Big Tobacco's campaign cash will pay off at the ballot box.

In Cleveland, I'm Mhari Saito for Marketplace.

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