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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Big Tobacco's Ads vs. Prop. 10 Are a Breath of Fresh Air

October 12, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Cheap shots, distortions, flat-out lies. Also, irrelevancies and guilt by association. These are the hallmarks of most political ads. So it was amazing last week to see a TV spot that was pertinent and practically factual.

Oh, you could quibble over semantics. But this ad was as truthful as it ever gets in politics, and much more on the up-and-up than most.

Having ripped apart some ugly, fallacious spots in the past, I felt a duty to pay homage to honesty. Even if the sponsor was--still more amazing--the tobacco industry.

Yes, the bad guys have gone straight. At least for the anti-Proposition 10 campaign. At least for the moment.

Prop. 10 is filmmaker-actor Rob Reiner's ballot initiative to raise the cigarette tax by 50 cents a pack to pay for early childhood development programs.

What immediately caught my attention about the opposition TV ad was this opener: "Proposition 10 is a $700-million tax increase on smokers. So the fact that tobacco companies oppose it shouldn't surprise anyone."

Nice touch, I thought. A little inoculation against a pending anti-tobacco industry attack by the Prop. 10 campaign.

The announcer continues:

"But here are some facts that might surprise you: 80% of the tax increase goes to programs that have nothing to do with smoking. Proposition 10 circumvents California's Constitution so none of the money goes to our schools. It authorizes 59 new state and county commissions with hundreds of new appointees and bureaucrats. And Prop. 10 has no controls and no specifics on how the money's spent.

"We don't expect you to take our word for it. . . read it yourself."

*

So I read it.

You really can't tell how much money would be spent on programs that have nothing to do with smoking. But clearly most would be. Although one of Prop. 10's aims is to cajole people into kicking nicotine--especially pregnant moms--less than 6% of the money is guaranteed for that. There's also a long list of other aims, including good nutrition, prenatal help, child care, health services, parent training, drug avoidance and violence prevention.

The 80% figure is the share allotted to the new county commissions. They would not be bound to any specific program, only broad guidelines developed by the new state commission. The many guideline components--including anti-tobacco education--are sketched in the initiative.

The point: Prop. 10 is a big new government program--loosely defined with little central control--that is about much more than smoking. Yet only smokers would be forced to pay for it.

If quality child development is good public policy for California--and who can argue it isn't?--then every California taxpayer should foot the bill.

Smokers already are hit up for 25 cents a pack to pay for state programs authorized by Prop. 99, passed in 1988. Only one-fourth of that money is guaranteed for anti-smoking education and tobacco-related disease research. The rest goes for general health care, some even for wildlife enhancement. Smokers also pay 2 cents a pack for breast cancer research, although there's no conclusive evidence that cigarettes cause breast cancer. Then there's another 10 cents earmarked for the state general fund.

In all, California smokers pay a 37-cent state tax. Tacking on another 50 cents would make California's tax the third highest in the nation. What's more, the feds impose a 24-cent tax; there are proposals to jack that up another buck.

Maybe it's time to ease up on smokers. They're smoking themselves to death. Why tax them to death?

*

Smokers--and I've never been one--get pounded because they're easy marks. They're addicted to a poisonous product peddled by a justifiably hated industry. But it's the smoker who is hit in an act of political cowardice. If pols want to raise taxes, they should courageously go after all of us. And force big tobacco to scale back on nicotine.

It would make sense to tax smokers to pay for tobacco-related health care. Or to enforce the ban on sales to minors. Or douse the brush fires ignited by flipped butts. But child nurturing?

One counter-argument is that raising the cigarette tax really is good for smokers--particularly teens--because it prods them to quit. So, Big Brother, what's next? A surtax on beer? Red meat? American cheddar?

Prop. 10 seems headed for voter approval because the tobacco industry long ago squandered all credibility. Now, its anti-10 ad-makers have no option: their only hope is to play it straight. There's no wiggle room for deception.

But whatever the reason, any straight talk in politics deserves to be saluted.

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