By the slimmest of margins in a low-turnout election this year, California voters rejected a proposed tobacco tax initiative Proposition 29, which would have created a new state cancer research institute.
That doesn't mean Californians oppose new cigarette taxes. It simply means the tobacco industry after spending more than $44 million in advertising to defeat Prop. 29 was able to convince a bare majority of those voting that the revenue would be unwisely spent.
The Golden State was once a leader in both educating consumers about the risk of smoking and raising the price of cigarettes one of the most effective ways to prevent young people from smoking. But the defeat of Prop. 29 leaves California in the middle of the road among states in taxing tobacco. Other parts of the country and the world have surged ahead of us, largely because so many California lawmakers, of both parties, have become beholden to the tobacco industry.
Consider the experience of Australia. In 1945, approximately 72 percent of Australian men smoked, one of the highest rates in the world.
As of 2010, that figure had dropped to 16.4 percent, for at least two reasons: Australia has mounted an aggressive public education campaign to discourage smoking. In addition, it has raised taxes to the point that Aussies now spend about 16 Australian dollars, or $16.80, for a single pack of cigarettes.
California deserves credit for its anti-smoking education efforts, which have helped dropped smoking rates among men to 14.4 percent, and 9.4 percent among women, in 2010. That's lower than in Australia, but that country started with higher rates than California, and arguably has been achieving greater reductions in the last decade, as its tobacco tax has soared.
Here in California, lawmakers haven't approved a tobacco tax increase since 1993. Over the years, the cigarette industry has successfully blocked tobacco tax hikes in the Legislature more than 30 times.
Altria and other tobacco companies have strategically invested millions of campaign dollars in lawmakers and their parties to prevent a two-thirds vote in favor of a tobacco tax increase. The state Republican Party and GOP lawmakers have been major recipients, but so have Democrats. Some of the notable Democratic recipients include Sens. Ron Calderon, Lou Correa, Gloria Negrete McLeod, Curren Price and Rod Wright. Other sitting Democrats have also received substantial support from the tobacco industry, most notably Gov. Jerry Brown and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez.
The reason lawmakers should raise the tobacco tax isn't to punish cigarette companies, although that is tempting. The reason is to push down smoking rates, particularly among young people, saving tens of thousands of lives and untold millions of dollars in health care costs. In addition, the revenue from a $1 per pack increase could put a dent in the state deficit and boost anti-smoking efforts.
In Australia, the High Court this week cleared the way for cigarette packs to be shrouded in images of people with mouth ulcers, lung tumors and other horrible effects of smoking. Because of federal court rulings, that may not be legally possible in the United States. But here in California, we certainly can do more than we have the last two decades.
To save lives, we have to do more.