Until recently, Oregon appeared poised to join California and Hawaii in raising the legal age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21.
Senate Bill 754 drew broad support from public health advocates, including the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Medical Association and the Oregon Nurses Association. It easily passed the Senate, and was expected to fly through the House to Gov. Kate Brown's desk. (More than 7,000 Oregonians a year die from tobacco-related causes, making it the state's leading cause of preventable death.)
But the tobacco lobby has turned to an influential friend to extinguish the bill.
On March 20, records show, the world's largest tobacco company, Altria (formerly known as Philip Morris), hired former state Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland) as a lobbyist.
Carter, 81, is a well-known name in Salem. In 1985, she became the first black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature. She finished her career in 2009 as co-chair of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee.
And since signing on to lobby for Altria, Carter has pushed a narrative that stopped SB 754 cold: She told lawmakers that raising the legal age for buying tobacco could give police an excuse to racially profile minority youth.
The bill sailed through the House Health Care Committee, but on May 24, Democratic leaders pulled it from the House floor just before a vote. That rarely happens.
The reason, lobbyists say, is that by convincing enough House members that racial profiling would be a problem, Carter managed to block the bill's passage.
"The folks lobbying in the House were different from those in the Senate," says Jenn Baker, a lobbyist for the ONA. "[Carter] worked on it in the House and raised the issue of profiling for 18- to 21-year-olds."
The bill was sent to the House Rules Committee for possible amendment to address the issues Carter raised.
"There was still a lot of concern in the Trump era that there would be racial profiling," says state Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland), a chief sponsor of the bill.
One state representative says, however, that Carter didn't disclose who had hired her. State Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha) says Carter lobbied several of his colleagues, telling them the bill could lead to racial profiling.
Barker says some colleagues told him Carter had not disclosed she was working for Altria. "To try to kill a bill that way when you are really representing a tobacco company is not right," Barker says. "I'm disappointed in her."
Carter declined several requests by WW for comment, directing questions to Altria.
Chuck Tauman, president of the Tobacco Free Coalition of Oregon, says the objections Carter posed are a red herring because there's no evidence cops use tobacco as a pretext for hassling young smokers in Oregon, nor is there a penalty for underage possession of tobacco in the bill. (It punishes retailers instead.)
"It seems like a bogus argument, and it's typical of Altria's approach," he says.
Black Oregonians smoke at a far higher rate than whites, the opposite of the national pattern. And figures show that 9 out of 10 smokers begin the habit before the age of 21, so blocking the sale of tobacco to young smokers could make a big difference, not only for black teenagers but all young people.
"Increasing the minimum age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21 could have a meaningful impact, resulting in an estimated 12 percent decrease in smoking prevalence over time," Karen Girard, a manager in chronic disease prevention for the Oregon Health Authority, told lawmakers April 24.
Tauman says that he's "disappointed" that Carter is helping the tobacco giant head off stricter regulation of youth smoking.
"It's inconsistent with her work in the Legislature and at DHS," Tauman says. "But they pay well, and money is money."
As a lawmaker, Carter zealously advocated for the Department of Human Services budget.
Carter had earlier worked as a counselor at Portland Community College for 16 years. The school later named its technology building after her. Following her legislative career, she joined DHS as deputy director in 2009. She retired from the agency in 2014 and, according to state figures, now collects an annual pension of $102,360.
Carter began working as a lobbyist in 2016, advocating in Salem for Celgene, a New Jersey pharmaceutical company, and in Portland for fast-food restaurants opposed to a proposed ban on new drive-thru windows.
This session, records show, she's also lobbying for the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association political action committee and Cura Cannabis Solutions, an Oregon provider of cannabis oil.
Tauman, who as a trial lawyer won two multimillion-dollar cases against Altria, says Carter and Altria's lobbying against SB 754 may violate the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement (of which Oregon is a beneficiary) that prohibits the company from opposing legislation that would have the effect of "reducing youth access to, and the incidence of youth consumption of, tobacco products."
Altria spokesman David Sutton disagrees. He says "youth" means anyone under 18, and so legislation addressing people over 18 is irrelevant to the settlement agreement.
Altria's lobbying has delayed the bill, but may not ultimately kill it. House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland) says she's optimistic SB 754 will be amended in the House Rules Committee, which she chairs, and returned for a floor vote.
"My concern is police being able to stop someone because of this bill," Williamson says. "If we can fix that, I'm very supportive."