Californians shun tobacco. Smoking has been banned in workplaces here since 1994. So few adults smoke that it is socially unacceptable. Because of new legislation, Californians must be 21 to legally buy a pack of smokes.
And yet tobacco industry lobbyists, reinforced by tobacco company contributions to Democratic and Republican politicians, are able to snuff any legislation to raise tobacco taxes. So once again, voters are being asked to do what legislators have failed to do: raise taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, including increasingly popular nicotine-containing e-cigarettes, with the revenue earmarked for anti-tobacco efforts and health care.
For the good of public health, we urge a “yes” vote on Proposition 56.
Funded by anti-tobacco advocacy organizations, physicians, hospitals and health care worker unions, Proposition 56 would raise cigarette taxes by $2 per pack, to $2.87, and tax e-cigarettes that contain nicotine. The additional levy will generate $1 billion to $1.4 billion a year, on top of the $800 million raised by existing tobacco taxes, the Legislative Analyst’s Office says.
As it is, California’s 87 cent per pack tax ranks 37th lowest among the 50 states.
The bulk of the money, as much as $1 billion a year, would be earmarked for Medi-Cal, the state program that provides health care to 13 million poor people. Taxpayers pay an estimated $3.5 billion annually to treat people suffering from cancer, heart disease, emphysema and the many other tobacco-related maladies.
A smaller but significant sum – $100 million to $130 million – would be used specifically to combat tobacco use. We might have preferred more. But with another $100 million, on top of the $45 million now earmarked for anti-tobacco efforts, California’s tobacco control unit within the Department of Public Health ought to be able to drive smoking down even more.
As it is, California’s 87 cents per pack tax ranks 37th lowest among the 50 states, below Nevada’s $1.80, Arizona’s $2 and Oregon’s $1.32, and far less than New York’s $4.35 per pack tax, the nation’s highest.
Use declines precipitously as costs rise. Researchers have found that teen smoking falls by as much as 7 percent for each 10 percent rise in the cost of cigarettes – and the $2 per pack tax forces a significant price hike beyond the average $6 per pack cost of cigarettes.
In 1988, one in four Californians smoked. That was the year voters approved Proposition 99, a landmark initiative that raised tobacco taxes by 25 cents per pack, primarily to fund what then was a unique state-run anti-tobacco campaign. It has been a public health success. Now, 12 percent of Californians smoke.
Stanton Glantz, a UC San Francisco medical school professor and pre-eminent tobacco researcher, recently wrote that by 2009, the smoking reductions had “saved Californian citizens, taxpayers and businesses $134 billion in health care costs.” They also cost tobacco companies $28.5 billion in lost sales.
It’s no wonder then that since July 12, tobacco companies have raised $56 million to defeat Proposition 56. Expect to be inundated with anti-Proposition 56 messaging. Slick ads will lament that only a fraction of the money will go to anti-smoking efforts – as if the industry wants more to be spent against smoking, chewing and vaping.
The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board opposes most initiatives, particularly ones that would use the ballot box to lock in budgetary decisions. But we made exceptions in 1988 when we supported the Proposition 99 tobacco tax, and in 2012 when we supported the Proposition 29 tobacco tax. In 2012, voters rejected a $1 per pack cigarette tax by just 35,924 votes.
Then, as now, we recognize the benefits of raising the cost of an addictive and deadly product to curb its use and to help defray some of the societal toll of tobacco. This tax will move California nearer to a complete shunning of this scourge of habit, which, if we’re lucky, will someday generate no tax revenue at all.