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Prop. 56 will save lives and discourage young people from smoking

Cigarette packs are displayed at a convenience store. Proposition 56 would raise the state tax in California by $2 a pack.
Cigarette packs are displayed at a convenience store. Proposition 56 would raise the state tax in California by $2 a pack. Associated Press file

Proposition 56 will save lives, protect children and improve health care with a $2 per pack cigarette tax increase, with an equivalent increase on products containing nicotine derived from tobacco, including e-cigarettes.

More than 3 million Californians still smoke, and a staggering 40,000 Californians will die this year from tobacco-related diseases. The skyrocketing popularity of e-cigarettes among youths is creating a new generation of addicts. This year, nearly 17,000 California kids will start smoking and one-third of them will eventually die from tobacco-related illnesses.

The leading cause of preventable death nationwide and in California, tobacco exacts a grave toll on communities, families, health care systems and businesses. Tobacco kills more Californians than car accidents, guns, alcohol, illegal drugs and AIDS combined, and harms the health of nonsmokers through secondhand smoke.

This is a public health crisis.

Yet tobacco companies spend more than $9 billion annually marketing their deadly, addictive products, particularly to less wealthy individuals, communities of color and youths. The industry is spending tens of millions in California to fight Proposition 56 by obfuscating facts to protect profits, just as it has done for decades.

Increasing tobacco taxes is one of the best ways to help smokers quit as it reduces adult and youth smoking, according to the U.S. surgeon general. In every state that has significantly raised its tobacco tax, smoking rates have declined, especially among youths. Forty-seven states have raised their tobacco taxes since California last did. We now rank 37th.

As a doctor and parent, e-cigarettes particularly concern me. Tobacco companies market them with child-friendly themes such as “Minions” and “Tinkerbell” and candy flavored liquids such as tutti-frutti and gummy bears. E-cigarette vapor includes toxic chemicals and highly addictive nicotine. About 21 percent of California youths reported they use e-cigarettes and other electronic vapor products, and 45 percent reported using them at one point, according to a 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teens who try e-cigarettes are at least two times more likely to try traditional cigarettes.

The majority of revenue generated by Proposition 56 will go to Medi-Cal, an underfunded program that provides health care to one-third of Californians, including half of California’s children. The federal government will match each additional dollar that goes to Medi-Cal.

Whether they smoke or not, California taxpayers spend $3.5 billion yearly for tobacco-related diseases like cancer and heart disease through Medi-Cal. Proposition 56 ensures that users who don’t quit will shoulder a fairer share of tobacco’s costs.

Proposition 56 also will triple funding for California’s tobacco prevention and research programs and double funding for school-based tobacco prevention education. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association in California and American Academy of Pediatrics, California, are among Proposition 56 supporters.

Proposition 56 will improve the health of our children and communities. We cannot be complacent.

Michael Ong is associate professor of medicine in residence at UCLA and chairman of the state Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee and wrote this viewpoint on behalf of the Yes on Proposition 56 campaign. He can be contacted at michael.ong@ucla.edu.

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