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The cigarette and vaping display at a convenience store in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 30, 2019. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Big tobacco has launched a forceful effort to stop a bill that would ask Colorado voters to approve a cigarette tax increase and a new nicotine tax, spending thousands of dollars on a social media campaign against it and hiring some of the most powerful lobbyists at the state Capitol to ensure the measure is killed.

Their opposition came quickly — even before the measure was introduced, state records suggest.

Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers announced the legislation April 24 and hope to fast-track it to approval before the legislative session ends by midnight Friday. But the lobbying arm of tobacco giant Altria hired lobbyists a week earlier and began to rally people against the bill on Facebook and Twitter the day the tax effort was announced.

Altria owns cigarette-maker Philip Morris and has significant stake in popular vape brand Juul.

Altria hired at least 10 lobbyists at the Capitol this legislative session, including Doug Friednash, a chief of staff to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, and Melissa Kuipers Blake as well as several other of their colleagues at powerhouse firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, according to lobbying records.

The e-cigarette trade group Vapor Technology Association, which is working against measures to restrict vaping across the nation, has also hired lobbyists from the Trimpa Group to oppose the bill at the Capitol, the records show.

The legislation would ask voters in November to raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes to $2.49 from 84 cents and set a standard 62% tax on all nicotine products, including vaping fuel for the first time. An estimated $300 million in annual revenue from the tax would be split between early childhood education efforts and health care under the proposal.

MORE: Coloradans may face 4 spending questions this year. Will new nicotine tax measure overload the ballot?

“No Blank Checks for Colorado,” funded by Altria, has created a website, Twitter account and Facebook page to promote ads encouraging voters to contact prominent Democratic lawmakers. The “blank check” argument — which is misleading — is the same one Altria used in 2016, when it spent more than $16 million to defeat Amendment 72, a ballot question seeking to increase in the tobacco tax.

According to Facebook’s political ad transparency tools, the Altria account was registered on April 24, one day after The Colorado Sun broke the news about the proposed nicotine tax and the same day that the effort was formally rolled out.

A store selling vaping products in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

More than 30 paid Twitter ads were created and promoted from the @NoBlankChecksCO account, though several were rejected for violating Twitter’s rules for political advertising. Twitter does not provide information about which rules were broken for rejected ads.

The group paid for nine Facebook ads, some of which have been shown to between 200,000 and 500,000 users since April 27, with three spots active as of April 30. According to the ranges provided by Facebook’s tools, the page has spent between $3,400 and $15,590 to create between 336,000 and 985,000 impressions among Colorado Facebook users.

Ads on both platforms contained links to sign a form on that says it will generate and send a form email to the voter’s lawmaker. The site claimed to have sent more than 3,000 such form emails through midday Tuesday. Twitter ads directed toward lawmakers asked for a retweet to convey opposition to the measure.

Several of the ads questioned where marijuana tax revenue that was supposed to “fund our schools” went — a question that has been asked and answered many times — before claiming that the nicotine tax represents a “blank check for politicians.”

“Altria’s tobacco operating companies oppose excise tax increases which place an economic burden solely on adult tobacco consumers,” company spokesman George Parman told The Colorado Sun. “This is particularly true in Colorado, where voters struck down a similar measure in 2016.”

Democrats blasted the ads as being misinformation.

“It’s big tobacco pulling out all the stops to keep people addicted to their products, including children, which is really the point of the bill,” said Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and lead sponsor of the tax effort. “They have unlimited resources, basically.”

State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat, speaks at a news conference Wednesday, April 24, 2019, announcing a nicotine tax ballot question proposal. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The lawmaking session ends Friday and there may not be time or enough support to pass House Bill 1333.

Republicans have vowed to fight it by delaying its passage with prolonged debate. With limited time left, Democrats will likely have to sacrifice other legislation to give the measure — a Polis priority — a chance to advance.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers won’t finish their calendar. Now Democrats have to decide which bills to let die.

“I don’t understand why they would try that this late in the session,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “… We’ll take all the time on that one.”

And there also may not be enough Democratic votes to pass the bill. Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, says she is opposed to the measure out of concerns about impacts to cigar shops in her district. And with Senate Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate, any other defectors from the Polis’ policy could send the bill spiraling.

“I admire the cause,” Williams said, noting the would-be recipients of the nicotine tax revenue. “But I just don’t think that’s the place to get it.”

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, says she has strong reservations about the bill stemming from its late introduction.

The legislation is awaiting final debate before the full Colorado House before it heads to the Senate where it needs at least three votes– including a committee hearing where public comment is allowed.

But others say not to count out the political capital Polis is willing to spend to ensure the bill’s passage. “I wouldn’t underestimate the governor’s ability to persuade people to get behind him,” House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, told reporters this week.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many lobbyists and firms are working in opposition to the bill and how much money is being spent. The lobbyists don’t need to disclose which legislation they are tracking for clients until a month or more later. In this case, the deadlines would come weeks after the 2019 legislative session.

Lobbyists gather outside of the Colorado Senate chambers on April. 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But the firms that hire lobbyists are disclosed within 24 hours of a written agreement during the session. And the state data offers insights into the big money seeking to influence the bill.

So far, records show there are a handful of lobbying firms or lobbyists working against the measure, including Brownstein, the Trimpa Group, AOK Strategies and former Republican state Sen. Greg Brophy. Smoker Friendly, the Boulder-based chain of 800 tobacco retailers, is another business that has hired lobbyists in opposition.

Juul Labs hired a lobbying firm in Colorado for the first time in December, and two lobbyists at Capitol Focus are representing the vaping company. Juul also lists a lobbyist from a firm based in San Francisco.

On the other side, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society, which supports limiting tobacco use, also hired lobbyists for the 2019 term.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

Eric Lubbers is one of the co-founders of The Colorado Sun, focused on making technology work hand-in-hand with journalism. He was born and raised in Yuma, Colorado, and since starting his career with the Rocky Mountain News/YourHub in 2005...

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....