This millennium has not been kind to cigarette smokers. Each year more locales prevent them from lighting up: restaurants, bars, beaches, parks. Since 1999, 47 states have raised taxes on tobacco. Strange as it may seem, left-of-left California is not among them.
California's cigarette tax, 87 cents per pack, ranks 33rd of the 50 states, well below the average of $1.46 per pack. In the last 30 years, the California state Legislature has passed just one tobacco tax — a piddling two cents in 1993. Voters last approved a cigarette tax, Proposition 10, in 1998.
On June 5, voters may decide to do what Sacramento lawmakers can't quite bring themselves to, by approving Proposition 29. The measure raises taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack, with 60 percent of that allocated for cancer research and 20 percent to smoking-abatement programs.
The reason California's 120 legislators haven't approved such a tax in a generation, even though most of the 120 statehouse politicians have been replaced multiple times under term limits, is simple, says Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine at UC San Francisco: “Tobacco interests dominate the legislative process with money.”
Since 2003, the tobacco industry has spent more than $11 million lobbying California state senators and Assembly members. Big Tobacco has given to the campaigns of all but two sitting Republican state Assembly members, as well as a good number of Democrats.
“For Republicans, it's a religious tenet — they don't support taxes,” says former state Senate president pro tem Don Perata, a prostate cancer survivor and co-author of Proposition 29. “But the tobacco industry has always had a couple of Democrats, too — usually somebody from the minority community.”
In the 1980s, it was African-American legislator-turned-congressman Mervyn Dymally. The Democrat argued repeatedly that a cigarette tax disproportionately hits low-income families and minorities. According to a study by Valerie Yerger at UC San Francisco, Dymally took his talking points directly from the tobacco industry, which showered him with campaign cash.
Today, state Assemblyman Isadore Hall and state Sen. Rod Wright, two black Democrats, carry water for big tobacco.
“What they don't tell you is when you add a tax to cigarettes, poor people tend to stop” smoking, Yerger complains.
So the tax is being taken directly to voters. The tobacco industry has responded by opening up its campaign firehose, dousing California with “No on 29” commercials. As of May 22, Philip Morris' parent company, Altria, had spent more than $27 million; R.J. Reynolds had kicked in almost $12 million.
Perata believes the No on 29 side will spend up to $70 million. In 2006, the industry spent $67 million to fight Proposition 86, a cigarette tax on the California ballot. Proposition 86 lost by a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent.
“There are billions of dollars at stake,” says Jim Knox of the American Cancer Society. “Spending tens of millions of dollars is just a good business decision.” (Altria and Philip Morris declined to comment.)
Much of the TV and radio advertising from the No on 29 side has starred Dr. La Donna Porter. Porter, who is black, perhaps was chosen as a subtle reminder of opponents' claims that such taxes are unfair to minorities.
But the ad, eerily reminiscent of 1950s-era promotions that proclaimed, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” caused a public outcry — so much so that Gov. Jerry Brown abruptly removed Porter from a state panel that identifies toxicants harmful to fetuses and infants.
While there may be no industry that Californians would rather see taxed to within an inch of its life than Big Tobacco, Proposition 29 is not a slam dunk on June 5.
There are two key reasons for this. Even in 2006, amidst an economic boom, Californians weren't buying a cigarette tax. An analysis of Field Polls that year showed many voters, including nonsmokers, saw further cigarette taxes as unfair to low-income people — and to smokers generally.
“Right now in California, the amount of taxes that are imposed on all levels is one of the reasons why we have such a weak economy,” says Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the California Republican Party. “We have to dramatically reduce the cost of being consumers in this state, or we're gonna be stuck at 11 percent unemployment forever.”
But there's a second twist that could hurt Proposition 29 this year: A newer train of thought opposes the tax on principle because it allows Californians to “legislate by ballot box.”
One such opponent is Joe Mathews, a fellow at the New America Foundation and blogger at PropZero. It pains him to side with the tobacco industry, but he says, “The evil guys are technically right.” Mathews and PropZero oppose ballot measures that create new pools of taxpayer money to be spent only on specific purposes — not for the state's general fund, which Brown and legislators tap to pay state expenses.
“The state does need more revenue, and a cigarette tax could pass,” Mathews says. “But to take it off the table for the general fund, that's not a nice thing to do. … We gotta stop doing this kind of shit.”
The problem with that reasoning, Glantz argues, is “if Proposition 29 would be written that way, then the other side would say, 'They're just giving money to the fucked-up politicians.' So you can't win for losing.”
Recently, a Los Angeles Times editorial took up Mathews' view that Proposition 29 should lose because it requires the revenue to be spent on cancer and research, not go to the state's general fund. Los Angeles City Hall gadfly John Walsh responded with a colorful, all-caps missive declaring: “TWO-PACK-A-DAY SAM ZELL … BLOWS SMOKE UP L.A. TIMES EDITORIAL WRITERS' ASSES TO FORCE A NO ON 29 EDITORIAL OUT OF THEM.”
Glantz says those focused on where the money goes miss the point of Proposition 29: It was never meant to save Brown and the Legislature from the state's yawning $16 billion deficit. It's intended to make smoking so expensive that many people quit or never start, thus saving lives.
The Centers for Disease Control says tobacco-related fatalities outnumber deaths from alcohol, illegal drugs, murders, suicides, fires and AIDS combined. The Cancer Society's Knox says by far the most effective way to prevent kids from starting is “by raising the price.”
Joel Fox, an antitax advocate and president of the Small Business Action Committee, dismisses this argument as the latest effort to enact “nanny state” rules legislating behavior. “They are trying to establish their moral standards by raising this tax, making it more difficult to purchase something.”
Glantz contends that legislating human behavior, in this case, works. He estimates that within five years of the measure's passage, California's already low smoking rate would drop three points to 8.5 percent (the national average is around 20 percent), saving the state up to $32 billion in medical costs, including more than $10 billion saved by state government.
He sees the large sums of cash that Proposition 29 would raise for research and antismoking programs as a bonus. “The fact is,” Glantz says, “if you took all the money out and put it in a pile and burned it, it would still be a good thing to do.”