On Tuesday Californians will vote on an initiative to raise taxes on cigarettes. It’s called Proposition 29, the “California Cancer Research Act,” and it would increase the state tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack, raising $700 million a year, which would be spent on cancer research.
I’m voting against it.
The “No on 29” campaign is funded mostly by the tobacco industry, which is the main reason many people are voting “Yes.” Phillip Morris has spent $27 million, R.J. Reynolds $11 million.
The “No” campaign includes some of the worst forces in American politics: Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ political arm that played a key role in the Republican victories in 2010; Americans for Tax Reform, the Grover Norquist organization that gets Republicans to sign a “no new taxes” pledge: the Chamber of Commerce, which has been funding Republicans everywhere; the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, responsible for Prop. 13, the 1978 initiative that crippled the state’s ability to raise taxes.
The “Yes on 29” campaign includes the American Cancer Society, an $8 million donor; the Lance Armstrong Foundation, $1,5 million; plus the American Lung Association in California, American Heart Association, American Stroke Association and the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The “Yes” side argues that the higher tax will result in a 14 percent decrease in youth smoking, which means 230,000 fewer California kids will become adult smokers. The higher tax, they say, will get 118,000 adult smokers in California to quit; it will save 104,000 Californians from premature smoking-caused death; and it will save $5 billion in healthcare costs. Even if those figures are exaggerated, they are impressive.
But there is an argument against the initiative: the tobacco companies and their friends say “California can’t afford to start a new billion-dollar spending program when we have a $10+ billion budget deficit and can’t pay for critically-needed existing programs like education and health care.”
They are right about that.
If the money from higher tobacco taxes went to support healthcare in general, to prevent the closure of emergency rooms and help provide home health aides and medical care for the poor, it would be great. Instead the initiative creates a new state agency with its own tax base.
As the Los Angeles Times pointed out in an editorial opposing the initiative, “California can’t afford to retain its K-12 teachers, keep all its parks open, or give public college students the courses they need to earn a degree.… If the state is going to raise a new $735 million, it should put the money in the general fund rather than dedicating it to an already well-funded research effort.”
A new Survey Research poll shows Prop. 29 leading 42–38, which is officially “too close to call.”