"Robo-calls" are no longer just for political campaigns, and no longer will end on Election Day. It turns out that the American Cancer Society has decided the calls can be an effective lobbying tool, too — as 262,000 Utah households are now discovering.

Automated calls featuring retired KSL-TV anchor Dick Nourse are this week asking Utahns identified as regular voters to contact legislators to support nearly tripling Utah's cigarette tax from the current 69.5 cents per pack to $2.

"This is a brand new twist" on lobbying, said Michael Siler, director of government relations for the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network in Utah. "We are running this almost as if it were a political campaign."

Danny Harris, grassroots relations manager for the group, said, "We are running this kind of a campaign to counter tobacco lobbyists who have a lot more money than we do. But we did some polling that shows that well over 80 percent of Utahns favor raising the cigarette tax by $1 or more per pack. We want to mobilize that public opinion."

But the tobacco lobby is known for spending plenty of money on Utah legislators, which can be persuasive.

For example in the past two years, just one tobacco company — Altria — gave a combined $78,250 in campaign donations to 41 of Utah's 104 legislators individually, plus to some party groups that spread money among all members.

Recently defeated House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy, received the most of any individual, $7,500. Those totals do not count gifts or donations to legislators from other tobacco companies and their lobbyists.

"Hi, this is Dick Nourse. And I'm calling you because we have a serious problem in Utah," the automated call begins. "Utahns have been paying for smoking costs for years now and that has to end," says two-time cancer survivor Nourse as the call invites listeners to visit the group's Web site (www.acscan.org/Utah) to support the cigarette tax increase.

At the Web site, viewers will find a message they can send to legislators with a few clicks of a computer mouse. They also see an invitation to join the American Cancer Society at a continental breakfast that it has planned for legislators Feb. 17 at the Capitol, and in lobbying that day to talk about the issue.

Harris said the robo-calls are just the first step of its new campaigning/lobbying. Later calls — by live volunteers — will try to identify people in key districts who strongly support the tax increase, and they may be asked for help, he said.

Siler said his group is working with Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, on drafting legislation for the tax increase, and intends for the $48.7 million a year he projects the increase will generate to go to health care or cancer research.

Harris added that his group figures the resulting higher cost of cigarettes would also cause about 15,000 Utahns to quit smoking because they could no longer afford it.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he is also working on a bill to raise the cigarette tax to about $2 a pack, and is working with the American Cancer Society and a variety of other groups to seek support. He unsuccessfully sought last year to raise the tax by 50 cents a pack.

"We started too late in the session last year. Also, we had a surplus that year, and a lot of members didn't want to raise taxes in that situation," Ray said. "This year there will be a cigarette tax increase. The question is: How big will it be?"

Siler said he expects opposition to a tax increase because it could hurt some Utahns during tough economic times. "But our position is that the Legislature cannot in the sake of fairness not do this campaign," he said. "Eighty-eight percent of Utahns don't smoke, but they are probably paying the majority of (health care) costs for those who do. It's really time for smokers to cover those costs."

Utah's cigarette tax of 69.5 cents a pack is currently the 34th highest among the 50 states and District of Columbia, according to the Federation of Tax Administrators. The highest cigarette tax is $2.58 a pack in New Jersey, and the cheapest is just 7 cents in South Carolina. Ten states have cigarette taxes that are at least $2 a pack.

E-mail: lee@desnews.com