Capitol Alert

California tobacco tax backers unveil new campaign

Dr. Michael Ong and other advocates announce a tobacco tax campaign at a press conference in Sacramento, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.
Dr. Michael Ong and other advocates announce a tobacco tax campaign at a press conference in Sacramento, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014. The Sacramento Bee

Seeking to further reduce California’s already-low smoking rates, a coalition of labor and health advocates unveiled on Thursday a campaign to impose a $2-a-pack cigarette tax through legislation or a ballot initiative.

“Smoking-related disease remains the world’s most preventable cause of disease,” Dr. Richard Thorp, past president of the California Medical Association, said at a news conference.

Tobacco use continues to addict young people and kill thousands of Californians annually, doctors and health advocates argued at the Thursday morning news conference. High taxes are a proven tool for discouraging smoking, they said.

Backers also argued that the cost of treating tobacco-related illness is burdening California’s public health system. Terry Brennand of the Service Employees International Union, whose members include nurses and other health care workers, pegged the price tag at $3 billion a year for Medi-Cal alone. Money from the tax, if passed, would flow into areas like Medi-Cal administered services, smoking prevention programs and research.

“This effort will go a long way toward restoring the research and prevention aspect but also funding the tobacco impacts,” Brennand said.

Boosting California’s tax would bring the state in line with others, said advocates who noted that 32 states impose a heftier tobacco tax than California.

Yet California boasts some of the lowest smoking rates in the country, according to data compiled by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Only Utah has a lower percentage of adult smokers, and California’s youth smoking rate is the ninth lowest in the nation. Still, inaction would allow smoking rates to again creep up, argued Dr. Michael Ong, who has conducted tobacco control research.

Tobacco tax supporters renewing their tobacco tax push believe they will draw on a more formidable coalition than they assembled in 2012, when voters rejected Proposition 29’s tobacco tax by less than 1 percentage point.

They will have to contend with the financial might of the tobacco industry. Firms like R.J. Reynolds and Phillip Morris contributed most of the $48 million opponents spent on defeating Proposition 29. A spokesman for Altria, the parent firm of tobacco companies including Philip Morris USA, called the concept of tobacco excise tax increases generally poor policy.

“Altria’s tobacco companies oppose tobacco excise tax increases that are unfair to adult tobacco consumers, create additional incentives for illicit trade in tobacco products, are costly to legitimate businesses, do little to solve systemic state budget problems and lead to less stability in state’s finances,” spokesman David Sutton wrote in an email.

In seeking a $2-a-pack tax, proponents are backing a more ambitious proposal than Proposition 29, which sought to levy a $1-a-pack tax. Proposition 29 lost by a slender margin in a primary election, when turnout – particularly by Democratic voters – tends to be much lower. That close finish, and the prospect of more Democratic voters showing up at a general election in a presidential year, heartened proponents ready to try again.

If backers try to increase the tax via a bill in the Legislature, it would require a two-thirds vote, which means backers would need support from at least a few Republicans.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.