By Sarah Varney

(Ferran Jorda: Flickr)
(Ferran Jorda: Flickr)

California voters are schizophrenic when it comes to regulating smoking. Polls show broad support for bans on smoking on sidewalks and public parks. Some cities have even outlawed smoking in apartment buildings.

But in 2006, the state’s voters rejected a ballot measure to hike cigarette taxes. While California was once the most aggressive state in taxing cigarettes, the tax rate here is lower than that of 32 other states. At 87 cents a pack, California’s cigarette taxes are 60 cents lower than the national average.

Proposition 29 — on the ballot June 5 — would change that. It would raise the tax on cigarettes to almost $2 a pack.

Jane Warner, president of the American Lung Association of California, hopes voters will be game to raise tobacco taxes when they decide the fate of Prop 29. “We’ve made this initiative very simple,” she says. “It was written by the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. It is very simple, very clear — to save lives.”

The Centers for Disease Control has found increasing the price of cigarettes reduces demand. Teenagers are especially sensitive to price, so if the tax is approved, fewer of them would pick up the habit. Right now about 12 percent of Californians smoke. That rate could drop significantly if Prop 29 is approved.

There’s also a financial bonus. The state’s Legislative Analyst Office estimates the measure will provide more than $700 million dollars annually in revenue.

Some of the money will go to anti-smoking programs and enforcing tobacco laws. But the bulk of it will fund medical research on cancer and other tobacco-related illnesses. Warner says that’s only fair.

“Those of us who don’t smoke in California, we’re paying the bill,” Warner added. “We’re paying billions of dollars in health care costs because of smoking and it is preventable.”

If fewer people smoke, tobacco companies will lose money, and they’re spending mightily to stop Proposition 29. Phillip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and others have, so far, poured $40 million into defeating the June ballot measure, more than five times their opponents.

Tobacco companies, though, are keeping a low profile. An R.J. Reynolds spokesman referred media calls to a coalition of anti-tax groups which are the campaign’s public face. Tom Del Beccaro chairman of the California Republican Party, says Californians can’t afford a higher tax burden than they already have. “I’m fond of saying, If you can’t afford the mortgage, you shouldn’t be doing any additions to the house. This is an addition.”

He says the funds dedicated to medical research would create a new state bureaucracy at a time when California can’t manage its current slate of programs.

“Any new government program,” Del Beccaro says, “where you are taking money out of people’s pockets is only going to drag California down further. So quite apart from the specific issue, Californians can’t afford this.”

Joe Mathews is a fellow at the New America Foundation and an expert on California’s initiative process. “This is kind of the vanilla ice cream with chocolate on top that should pass by natural rights, but may not.” The problem, he says, is the idea of having “gold-plated” programs while gutting core health programs is problematic for some voters.

“I think that’s an argument that may have some traction politically,” Matthews adds. “It’s certainly an argument that has lot of merit policy wise.”

Health groups say they’ve tried to raise the cigarette tax through the state legislature nearly three dozen times and have offered to put much of the money into the state’s general fund. Those efforts, the groups say, could never overcome Republican opposition to raising taxes, even one targeted at smokers.

The library at the University of California, San Francisco houses previously secret tobacco company documents made public as part of a historic industry settlement. There, professor of medicine and tobacco researcher Stan Glantz points to a series of state-sponsored anti-smoking ads that parody the well-known Marlboro Cowboy.

“One is a cowboy looking at his horse saying, ‘Chemotherapy scares me Scout,'” he described. “Another one is two cowboys riding off into the sunset saying, ‘I miss my lung Bob.'”

During the 1990s, billboards like these blanketed the state. Now Glantz says, the cigarette tax has remained the same since 1999 but the cost of advertising has gone up. So ads like the cancer-stricken cowboys are rare.

“When you’re running a tobacco control program, especially a media campaign, if you have the world’s best ads and not enough money for people to see them, they don’t work.”

With tens of millions of dollars going into the fight over the tobacco tax measure, it’s unlikely any California voter could avoid ads this election season.

Learn More

To see how California’s cigarette rates compare to other states, visit KQED’s The Lowdown. The blog has non-partisan links to voter information, too.

Proposition 29: First Cigarette Tax Increase in 13 Years. Yes or No? 21 May,2012State of Health

  • Ccpkyde0

    My mother died a slow, horrible, painful death from lung cancer. Cancer shut down her kidneys, went to her brain. The most horrible thing I have ever witnessed in my life. Please!Please shut these people down.There only rebuttle is that “no new jobs raised from this tax??? and that the money is going out of state??? SOOOO WHHHAAATTTT!!! TEXAS HAS ONE OF THE BEST CANCER RESEARCH CENTER IN THE WORLD! Please, Please, shut these people down.

    • Fred Mangels

      And Texas doesn’t have this tobacco tax.

  • Fred Mangels

    How anyone can support a tax that applies to someone else and not themselves is beyond me. It’s immoral. I would never do that and will vote NO on Prop 29.

  • Edward

    They taxed it when Riener put it on the ballot some years ago and they cant account for the money to this day. those Associations and thier board members will continue to make a lot of money. when has a research co. ever given an update of their research or has ever given a account of thier progress. for 40 years ive heard of no cure. Or what they have recieved in the billions.

    • Tammy

      Prop 10 taxes were mainly geared toward educating families and early childhood education. I can’t thank Rob Reiner enough for having the insight to help children at the earliest stages. Also, as a preschool teacher I was the recipient of several stipends through First 5, which was funded by prop 10. This helped myself and many others stay in the field where the pay is extremely low. It’s fairly easy to look up where funds from prop 10 have gone.

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, smoking bans and high cigarette taxes are inevitable. When I was a smoker, I was against them. Since I switched to electronic cigarettes, I no longer have to worry about smoking bans, tar, the smell, or high cigarette taxes. There has never been a better time to switch to e-cigs.

  • Great article, Prop. 29 message is quite simple: It WILL save lives, it WILL protect our kids/grand-kids, and it WILL raise money for research, possible finding a cure for some of our most deadly diseases, somehow, I don’t see what could get any better than that. I am a cancer survivor and I lost my husband to smoking related diseases just before our 30th Wedding Anniversary. Look at the numbers, we know that WHEN Prop. 29 passes it will keep 228,000 of our kids / grand-kids from ever picking up that first cigarette, no addiction and no future profit for Big Tobacco. It will also prevent $ millions from leaving the state of California to go to the states where Tobacco is grown. It helps the health care system, the schools, and more! Why wouldn’t you VOTE YES on Prop. 29? I already cast my VOTE and it was YES on Prop. 29.

  • Darren L

    Vote Yes on Prop 29… and here’s why…. California Citizens Against Wasteful Taxes (Anti Prop 29 group) Major donors 1) Altria/Phillip Morris: $23.7 million 2) RJR $9.6 million 3) US Smokeless Tobacco Altria/UST LLC $2.6 Million 4) American Snuff Division of RJR $1.5 million 5) Santa Fe Natural Tobacco RJR Divison $984K

  • James J. Miller

    Big Tobacco has spent $40,000,000 thus far to fight P29. It could have been donated to children’s education and health care. Instead the tobacco syndicate earmarks it towards their lawyers and spin machines.

    The tobacco industry is an ugly evil empire that deals in addiction, pain and death throughout the world – nothing else.

    I support Lance Armstrong and strongly endorse P29.

  • Justin

    Im a smoker and I support this tax. Maybe the increase in price will help me quit or give me a reason to, other than my health. I support 29 and am voting YES.

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