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Lance Armstrong campaigns for tobacco tax initiative to fund cancer research

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong will launch a campaign in support of the California Cancer Research Act, which would add a $1 tax to tobacco products.

February 27, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Lance Armstrong appears at the Cancer Council Classic cycling race in Adelaide, Australia on January 16, 2011.
Lance Armstrong appears at the Cancer Council Classic cycling race in Adelaide,… (Mark Gunter / AFP/Getty…)

Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France winner who announced his retirement earlier this month, will kick off a state ballot initiative campaign in Los Angeles on Monday for a measure that would direct hundreds of millions of dollars toward cancer research by levying an additional $1 tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Organizers of the initiative known as the California Cancer Research Act, which was spearheaded by former state Senate leader Don Perata, gathered more than 433,000 signatures last year to qualify for the next statewide ballot, which is scheduled for February 2012.

But their timeline may be accelerated by Gov. Jerry Brown's push for a special election in June that would ask voters to help close the state's $26-billion budget gap by extending vehicle, income and sales taxes for five years. Brown must first win approval for the special election from two-thirds of each house of the California Legislature. If he succeeds, the cigarette tax initiative would automatically be placed on that ballot.

Armstrong, a cancer survivor, said in an interview Friday that his retirement from cycling would allow him to actively campaign for the measure — whether for a June or a February election. Armstrong's Livestrong foundation has raised more than $325 million for research and survivor support programs since its inception, according to its website.

"The scale of this disease and the devastation that it takes on, not even a daily or weekly basis, but on an hourly basis, is immense," Armstrong said. "I think the people working in the labs and working in the hospitals are certainly worthy of an initiative like this. ... With the opportunity to raise $600, $700, $800 million a year, you've got arguably some of the best and brightest minds in the world that will be the recipients of these funds."

Even with a figure as well-known as Armstrong at the helm, however, the ballot measure could face opposition, not only from tobacco companies, but potentially from lawmakers who disapprove of ballot-box budgeting and view the measure as a distraction from a slate of difficult decisions on budget cuts in the months ahead. Brown's proposed budget slices $6 billion from welfare and healthcare programs for the poor and $1 billion from public universities.

Lawmakers would be barred from using any money raised from the cancer research measure to address the state's fiscal troubles. California already levies an 87-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes, which provides money for early childhood development programs, research on tobacco-related diseases and other healthcare programs.

The additional dollar of cigarette tax proposed for cancer research would bring in about $855 million in the first full year of implementation, according to a 2010 report by the state's legislative analyst. That money would be placed into a new trust fund and parceled out to research institutions by a nine-member citizen oversight committee.

The governor would appoint four members of the panel — one practicing physician and three others who are directors of California cancer centers. The Department of Health would appoint two members from advocacy groups focused on tobacco-related illnesses. Three other seats would be filled by chancellors from the University of California campuses affiliated with the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley).

About 60% of the new revenue would go toward research focused on tobacco-related illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and lung disease. Campaign officials said the grants would go through a peer review process modeled on the one used by the National Institutes of Health.

A fifth of the money would go toward tobacco prevention programs, and 15% would be directed toward facilities, such as laboratories or research clinics. A small remaining portion would aid law enforcement programs, including efforts to prevent tobacco smuggling and sales to minors.

Armstrong will appear Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with Perata and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for what the campaign is calling a "working meeting" on the initiative as well as a news conference.

maeve.reston@latimes.com

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