The recent dust-up over the $700,000 contract to run Utah's anti tobacco advertising and education campaign that was awarded by the State Health Department to R&R Advertising brings back memories of the Beehive State's mostly Mormon elected officials' love affair with the deep-pocket tobacco companies.
To recap: I have written about the controversy over the R&R award because that company has lobbied in Nevada to expand where people could smoke under that state's Indoor Clean Air Act. The Purchasing Department held a hearing after another bidder protested and found there was no conflict and the Health Department could go ahead with the contract.
R&R also has assured the state that it will mount a vigorous campaign for smoking prevention and cessation and has reiterated that it has never represented tobacco companies, only members of the Nevada Resort Association that needed clarification for their customers on when and where they could smoke.
But health organizations are still concerned about the commitment to the anti-smoking cause, a reminder of how those organizations have been frustrated in the past, often by a Utah Legislature which has oddly seemed tobacco-friendly.
When former Utah Attorney General Jan Graham wanted Utah to join several other states in a massive lawsuit against the big tobacco companies to recover health care costs associated with tobacco use, she got little support, and even some animosity, from then-Gov. Mike Leavitt and the Republican-dominated Legislature.
She added Utah to the list of plaintiffs anyway and an eventual settlement landed the state, for its share, a cool $44 million a year for 25 years.
When Graham received word and scheduled a press conference to announce the windfall for the state, Leavitt wanted a joint press conference so he and the Legislature could share the credit.
Graham, still burning from the rejection she got earlier, refused to have a joint press conference and a feud between the Democratic attorney general leaders of the dominant Republican party ensued.
The Legislature, as punishment, passed a bill in its next session which stripped Graham of much of her duties as attorney general and shifted those responsibilities to the governor's office.
That snub created such a backlash from the public that legislators, fearing voters' wrath in their next election, repealed the bill a year later.
But legislators have seemed lukewarm toward anti-tobacco legislation ever since and even using the settlement money for its intended purpose of stemming tobacco use.
Utah legislators, mostly Republicans, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years from the big tobacco giants, which might explain their reluctance to do much to curb smoking and make it more expensive.
A bill to extend the smoking ban indoors to bars passed, but not without loud opposition from the right wing elements of the Republican Party. Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, received a fair amount of grief from members of his own party before his bill to increase taxes on tobacco finally passed.
Conservative Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, even read a letter on the floor of the Senate from a restaurant and liquor store owner in Evanston, Wyo., who thanked Utah legislators for increasing the tax so more Utahns would come across the border for cheaper cigarettes in his establishment.
Stephenson didn't mention the gratitude of business owners in Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada for Utah's laws against lotteries, parimutuel betting and casino gambling that provides them with so much business from the Beehive State.
The Legislature has, at times, even tried to divert the $4 million of the $44 million annual take that is designated for a smoking education and cessation program to either the general fund or other pet projects.