‘Robo calls’ oppose cigarette tax

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

As its done in previous years, a major tobacco company is running a phone bank to urge New Mexicans to tell legislators to vote against raising cigarette taxes.

A spokesman for Altria, parent company of Phillip Morris, said Monday that such calls are supposed to go only to smokers over the age of 21 who have requested such information. However, one person who received a call from the company did not fit that description. She is the teenage daughter of an American Cancer Society official.

Cynthia Serna, the regional grassroots development director of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said her 15-year-old daughter received the automated “robo call” from Phillip Morris on Monday morning on her cell phone.

According to her daughter, Serna said, the caller gave a brief introduction about “a bill introduced by the New Mexico Legislature to increase the cigarette tax.” The girl’s cell phone was “cutting out,” Serna said, so she didn’t recall more specifics. But she said that the called asked her if she supported or opposed the proposed tax increase.

“When she said she supported it, the caller thanked her and hung up,” Serna said.

Altria spokesman Bill Phelps said of the call to the teenager, “If there was a mistake made, we’ll move to fix it.”

Cell phones of minors frequently are listed under their parents’ names.

Altria hasn’t yet disclosed its expense report for the phone campaign. The report is not due until after the session. Last year the company spent a reported $15,113 on phone banks to generate opposition to cigarette tax hikes.

The Senate on Saturday approved a measure that would increase the tax on cigarettes by $1 a package. This would provide an estimated $33 million to help balance the state’s ailing budget. Proponents said the cigarette tax would alleviate the need to lower state employee salaries.

Proponents also argue that making cigarettes more expensive lowers the number of teenage smokers and eventually saves the state money in Medicaid costs by reducing cancer and other medical conditions associated with smoking.

New Mexico currently imposes a 91-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes. With the proposed increase, only 15 states would levy a higher cigarette tax.

The proposal is in the House of Representatives, where the Business and Industry Committee voted earlier in the session to effectively kill an earlier proposal to raise the tax on cigarettes.

Phelps said the company opposes the tax increase because it would hurt convenience stores and other small business that depend on cigarette sales. The added tax would drive customers to tax-free stores on Indian land, he said.

Phelps also noted that the federal government last year increased its excise on cigarettes by $6 a carton.