When you ask politicians if they’re running for office, you expect coy deflection or a flat-out no, even if that no really means yes, but that’s not how Angela Alioto rolls. “Am I running for mayor? I’m always running for mayor,” she says with a glint in her eye. “Any politician who says they’re not running for something is a liar.”
Sitting behind a desk in her office in a building that bares her family name, Alioto is blunt, down-to-earth, and charismatic. Born into one of the most prominent political families in San Francisco, Alioto is an attorney who served eight years on the Board of Supervisors, including a stint as president. Her father, Joseph Alioto, was the 36th mayor of San Francisco. She’s the proud mother of four children and, because of them, a former smoker. “I quit in 1988,” she says, “because my kids kept hiding my cigarettes, and finally, my son Joe said, ‘We don’t want you to die!’ and that was it.” After reading some secret tobacco industry memos that were made public describing how they targeted children and certain ethnic groups, she began to feel a sense of outrage.
“In 1989, my first year on the Board of Supervisors, I began working on my first antismoking measures,” she says. In 1990, Alioto introduced legislation to ban smoking in restaurants. “They had nonsmoking sections, but they were barely separated and the smoke could still circulate freely,” she remembers. There was pushback from not only the tobacco industry but also from the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, afraid the law would drive away smoking customers. They weren’t the only ones who were angry. “An 86-year-old man hit me with his cane,” Alioto recalls. “He said I was ruining his ability to enjoy the rest of his life.” The measure was defeated at the Board of Supervisors by a six-to-five vote. “But I wasn’t giving up,” Alioto says.
She began to chip away at the tobacco lobby, introducing smaller pieces of legislation that garnered less attention and less opposition. In 1991 she authored an ordinance outlawing cigarette vending machines in San Francisco where minors had access. The ordinance passed. The following year she took on advertising, which tobacco firms said was aimed at convincing adults to switch brands. In her book, Straight to the Heart, Alioto points out research that showed companies spent the equivalent of $345 annually for every person who switched and grossed $347 — just $2 in revenue per smoker. The real reason for the advertising, Alioto says, was to get children to pick up the habit. Alioto cites a 1991 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found 30 percent of three-year-olds and 90 percent of six-year-olds knew the cartoon character Joe Camel was connected with cigarettes. “That’s higher brand-name recall than Mickey Mouse,” Alioto says. She authored an ordinance prohibiting tobacco advertising on most city properties. It, too, was signed into law.
By 1992, the general public was becoming more aware of Big Tobacco’s lies as executives stood before Henry Waxman’s congressional panel and denied health risks and the addictive nature of nicotine despite more than 6,000 studies to the contrary. This coincided with Alioto becoming president of the Board of Supervisors. “That comes with increased power,” she says. In 1993, she reintroduced her original legislation banning smoking in all San Francisco restaurants, and in 1994 it passed, becoming the strongest antismoking measure in California. “That’s when Assemblyman Terry Friedman called and said he was thinking of applying it to a state bill,” Alioto says. She drove to Sacramento to meet with him a couple of times, and California passed the legislation, which banned smoking in restaurants and workplaces, in 1996. “Every time I walked by an office building in the rain and saw smokers outside, I hid my face,” Alioto says, only half joking. (Two years later, California would become the first state to outlaw smoking in bars.)
In 1996, former Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown became mayor of San Francisco. In her book, Alioto says that during his years in Sacramento, Brown took more money from Big Tobacco than any other elected official at that time — between 1984 and 1995, Brown accepted over three-quarters of a million dollars in campaign donations, gifts, and legal fees. He voted in favor of a ban on cigarette taxes and co-authored the Willie L. Brown-Bill Lockyer Civil Liability Reform Act of 1987, making it impossible for Californians to sue tobacco firms for damages due to smoking-related illnesses.
Alioto feared that as mayor, Brown would undermine her antismoking legislation, but he didn’t. During his first nine months in office, Alioto introduced 10 pieces of legislation, all of which passed the board and Brown signed into law. “It was just too big and too popular for him to oppose it by then,” Alioto says. As San Francisco’s smoking ban turns 25, it has spread across the country and even the world. “I got a call from the president of Ireland thanking me,” Alioto says, with that familiar glint in her eye.