Another View: Tax hikes on smokes save lives

Dan Walters’ column (“Tax hikes on smokes isn’t the answer,” Dec. 1) begins by emphatically stating that cigarette smoking is a “dirty, dangerous and expensive habit,” and on this point my colleagues and I at the California Medical Association couldn’t agree more.

As physicians, we see the toll smoking takes on Californians and our health care system, and we believe every Californian should have the opportunity to live smoke-free, regardless of their income level.

Tobacco-related diseases account for a staggering 1 in 5 deaths in the United States. Of the estimated 44.8 million current smokers nationwide, recent surgeon general’s estimates are that roughly half of them will die from smoking-related illness.

But, as Walters pointed out, we all know that smoking is bad for us. What California taxpayers may not know is how costly tobacco use is to our state.

California spends $9 billion per year on health care related to treating diseases related to smoking, with taxpayers footing about a third of that.

Walters makes the tired charge that the tobacco tax is “regressive,” but a closer examination exposes this tobacco company talking point and, in fact, makes the case for itself. The facts show lower income people are more price sensitive to changes in cigarette prices, and therefore more likely to quit – something studies have revealed that most smokers have a strong desire to do.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, lower income Americans ultimately have paid just under 12 percent of a federal 2009 tobacco tax, but will account for greater than 46 percent share of the overall decrease in smoking-related deaths because of its enactment.

Lower income Californians would also disproportionately reap the added benefits of our proposed $2 per pack tobacco tax as funds would be directed to strengthen and expand medical care for the most vulnerable, stop young people from ever picking up the dangerous tobacco habit and direct dollars into research and cures.

As long as big tobacco doesn’t intend to stop targeting low-income people to smoke, spending $40 million to help narrowly defeat a tobacco tax in California in 2012, we can’t stop working to save lives.

The Save Lives California coalition – which includes the CMA, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, SEIU California, Health Access California and the California Hospital Association – is committed to reducing the number of preventable deaths and keeping our patients healthy.

Luther Cobb is president of the California Medical Association.