Tapping the Lobbying Power of Tobacco Consumers

A new weapon in the war against tobacco taxes debuts at NATO Expo.

by Thomas A. Briant

Were You There: The NATO Expo
The NATO Conference and Expo was the place to be for more than 2,300 retailers and 1,000 manufacturer exhibitors this past March. In fact, retailer attendance increased 45% over the 2002 trade show. The success of the NATO Expo can be measured not only in the retailer attendance levels and exhibit booth space, but in the participation at the NATO Annual Meeting and a special legislative panel of high level industry representatives.

During the NATO Annual Meeting, an unprecedented project was announced to NATO members. The project, known as Project S.T.O.P. (Stop Taxing Our Products) will mobilize adult tobacco store customers to oppose cigarette and tobacco tax increases across the country.

Another highlight of the NATO Expo was a panel discussion on numerous legislative issues being faced by tobacco stores. The issues discussed included the plethora of cigarette and tobacco tax increases, effective grassroots lobbying strategies, compliance with sales to minors laws, the FDA regulatory legislation, non-participating manufacturer legislation, minimum age increase legislation, self-service display ban bills, retail shelf space contract legislation, and cigar-related issues. Audience members participated in the discussions with questions and comments for the legislative panelists.

Industry representatives that served as panelists included Joe Rowe, associate director, Retail Tobacco Dealers of America; Norm Sharp of the Cigar Association of America; Roger Mozingo, vice-president of State Government Relations, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco; Bob Fackler, Government Affairs Department, Smokeless Tobacco Council; Todd Gimbel, Government Affairs Department, Philip Morris; Michael Shannon, Director of Government Affairs, Lorillard Tobacco Company; Josh Sanders, Government Affairs Consultant, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company; and Bob Pruett, National Government Affairs Director, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation.

Project S.T.O.P.
At a meeting held during the NATO Expo, the NATO Board of Directors approved proceeding with Project S.T.O.P. This project will involve a small retail counter display in the shape of a red "STOP" sign that holds postcards for adult customers to fill out with their name, address, phone number, and e-mail address. A NATO retailer will mail completed postcards to a database management company. Then, these customer names will be compiled into a master database with each customer being matched to their respective state and federal legislative districts.

When a cigarette or tobacco tax increase is proposed, an e-mail alert will be sent to all customers in the affected state. The e-mail message will inform the customer about the proposed tax; list the names, addresses, and phone numbers of their elected officials; and urge them to call and write their legislators to oppose the tax increase. NATO retailers should watch for updates on Project S.T.O.P. in the coming months.

Tax Battles
Excise tax battles continue as state legislative sessions start to come to a close. As of mid-May, the states of Connecticut, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming had enacted cigarette and/or tobacco product excise tax increases. A Georgia excise tax increase had been sent to the governor as well as an Arkansas tax increase. Those states that defeated proposed excise tax increases include Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia.

NATO continues to assist member retailers in opposing these unfair tax increases by providing letters to legislators and customer alert sheets to hand out to patrons so they can call local legislators. At least five states have also called special sessions due to the inability of the legislatures to pass balanced budgets by the regular session adjournment deadline.

1,700 Stores and Growing
With the retailer memberships processed from the NATO Expo and renewals from current members, more than 1,700 tobacco stores are now members of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets. During the NATO Expo, retail membership promotions to encourage new members to sign up were offered by Conwood Sales Company, Robert Burton Associates, Liggett Vector Brands, Phillips & King, and GTS Prepaid.

Tobacco shops that are already a NATO retail member should contact a local tobacco store colleague and urge them to join NATO. The more stores the association has in each state the greater the impact that we can have on tobacco-related legislation. Encouraging NATO's growth by urging other tobacco stores to become members of the association is one of the most important things a current member can do to promote NATO. A 2003 Retail Membership Application form is available online at www.natocentral.org, which can be completed and mailed to the NATO offices.

Thomas Briant is Executive Director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO), Eden Prairie, Minn., Tel: (866) 869-8888, Fax: (952) 934-7442, Web: www.natocentral.org.

SMOKESHOP - June, 2003