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Tobacco Industry Political Power and Influence in Florida From 1979 to 1999


The tobacco industry is a major political and legal force in Florida through campaign contributions, public relations efforts, lobbying and litigation, which at least from the late 1970s, has had a centralized political organization in Florida that defends and promotes its political and economic interests at the local and state levels of government. Although the industry has operated in the open in some political campaigns, it has also operated quietly behind the scenes, often through front groups, in various other state and local political campaigns.

In Dade County in 1979, GASP of Miami ran a clean indoor air initiative without the active support of the local affiliates of the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and American Heart Association. Despite being outspent by the tobacco industry 90 to 1, GASP only lost by 820 votes. Had the health groups provided public and political support, the initiative may well have won, substantially increasing the momentum for clean indoor air ordinances in Florida and elsewhere.

Prior to 1985, there were numerous ongoing local efforts to pass and enact a wide variety of local clean indoor ordinances. These efforts subsided considerably after the passage of the preemption clause in the weak Florida Clean Indoor Air Act (FCIAA) of 1985 which, at first, was supported by the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and American Heart Association. Since the passage of FCIAA, the tobacco industry has been able to stop all efforts by the three health groups and sympathetic politicians to repeal the preemption clause.

After the passage of campaign contribution limit laws in 1991 in Florida, tobacco industry campaign contributions have been redirected away from individual candidates and to the two major political parties. In the 1993-1994 election cycle, the industry gave the largest amount of contributions with $475,000 given to the parties compared to $95,856 to political candidates. The largest contribution to a political party came from Philip Morris, which gave $382,500 to the Republican Party. These contributions in conjunction with others has reinvigorated the two major parties as political power brokers who provide their candidates with advertising, technical assistance, and paid staff.

During the 1997-1998 electoral cycle, the tobacco industry's total campaign contributions were $398,194, with $310,250 given to the two major political parties in comparison to $84,194 for legislators. The Republican Party received $227,250 compared to the Democratic Party which received $82,500. The largest contribution to a political party came from Philip Morris, which contributed $125,000 to the Republican Party.

In August 1997, Florida and the industry settled a Medicaid fraud lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, the industry agreed to pay Florida $11.3 billion, end outdoor billboards, pay for public anti-tobacco campaigns, remove vending machines from places accessible to children, end tobacco advertising on buses and trains, complete an anti-tobacco youth campaign within two years of the settlement, and not name the industry in anti-tobacco ads. Due to further negotiations with the industry, on September 11, 1998, the amount paid to Florida was increased to $13 billion and restrictions on the two year time limit regarding the youth anti-smoking campaign and specifically naming the industry in anti-tobacco advertisements were lifted.

After February 1998, Florida began an effort to establish a $200 million youth anti-smoking campaign called the Tobacco Pilot Program in an effort to meet the two year deadline. The Tobacco Pilot Program has engaged in an extensive media campaign known as the "Truth Campaign" which began in late April 1998 and included tough in-your-face print, billboard, and media advertisements which ran throughout Florida. The major theme of this campaign is that Florida youth should choose "Truth" rather than use tobacco and be targets of industry advertising manipulation in the use of tobacco.

A report released on March 17, 1999 by the Florida Department of Health, Office of Tobacco Control regarding the progress of the Tobacco Pilot Program indicated that the Tobacco Pilot Program and its anti-tobacco media advertising campaign, in less than a year, had a substantial impact on influencing a significant number of Florida teens not to smoke. From February 1998 to 1999, the number of teens who were current smokers (smoked in the last 30 days) dropped from 23.3% to 20.9%. This represented 31,000 fewer Florida teenagers who were current smokers. These results represent the best results ever obtained in a large scale primary prevention program.

Although new Republican Governor Jeb Bush publicly called for the continuation of the Tobacco Pilot Program and the Truth Campaign, the program's funding was reduced from $70.5 million to $45.2 million (-36%) for the 1999-2000 Fiscal Year due to legislative votes by Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate to substantially reduce the funding of the program. These cuts were made despite public opinion polls showing that 49% of the public supported the program without any cuts and 30% supported the program with the $8.5 million cut proposed by Governor Bush. Two projects of the Tobacco Pilot Program which are crucial to maintaining the viability of the program including the Truth Campaign and administrative support for the Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) also received large budgetary reductions.

While the Tobacco Pilot Program received substantial funding cuts in the 1999 Legislative Session, funding for the American Heart Association's Youth Fitness Program of $3 million and $1 million for the Just The Facts program which was derived from the $45.2 million Tobacco Pilot Program budget, would have reduced the amount of funding for projects directly oriented towards tobacco control efforts to $41.2 million for 1999-2000. On May 27, 1999, Governor Bush vetoed these two diversionary projects, as well as the $2.5 million Sports for Life project which was related to tobacco control, further reducing the program's funding of projects directly related to tobacco control efforts from $70.5 million to $38.7 million (-45.1%).

For the past twenty years, a consistent pattern has emerged with respect to the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association missing key political opportunities that would have significantly advanced anti-tobacco efforts and public health in Florida. These lost opportunities included failing to support GASP of Miami in its 1979 Dade County clean indoor air initiative, supporting the preemption clause in the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act of 1985 which essentially quashed a blossoming grassroots anti-tobacco movement, and failing to forcefully advocate for the Tobacco Pilot Program by holding specific legislators directly and publicly accountable for the substantial funding cuts that occurred in the 1999 Legislative Session.

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