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Cigarette taxes: The anti-Prop. 29 smokescreen

June 01, 2012|By Sherry Lansing and Kristiina Vuori
  • Proposition 29 would increase California's cigarette tax by $1 per pack to boost funding for cancer research and anti-smoking programs.
Proposition 29 would increase California's cigarette tax by $1 per… (Daniel Acker / Bloomberg )

If you spend any time reading The Times, watching television or listening to the radio, you’ve been inundated with opinions and commercials against Proposition 29, the California Cancer Research Act -- commercials paid for by Philip Morris USA and other tobacco companies.

Proposition 29, on the June 5 ballot, would add a $1 tax on each pack of cigarettes to generate more than $700 million annually for research on cancer and other smoking-related diseases, as well as rejuvenate California’s crucial tobacco cessation and prevention programs.

The tobacco industry’s campaign against Proposition 29 is a case study for how corporations attack generally good initiatives that are harmful to their business interests, especially by diverting the discussion away from the initiative’s true purpose. This classic "red herring" strategy strives to confuse voters, and it’s unfortunate that The Times' editorial board (which urged a "no" vote on Proposition 29 in its April 27 endorsement) and respected columnist Michael Hiltzik have fallen into this trap.

Indeed, arguing the goals of Proposition 29 would be a losing strategy for the tobacco industry since a vast majority of Californians support an increase in the state cigarette tax (currently one of the lowest in the nation), understanding that it will benefit public health. Instead, the tobacco industry has focused its campaign not on the problems Proposition 29 will solve, but rather on what it isn't even intended to do.

Those on the anti-Proposition 29 side say the initiative will not do anything to solve our state's budget woes and should therefore be rejected. They are correct that Proposition 29 fails to provide funding for schools, roads or affordable housing. It doesn’t solve global warming or any number of other issues, either. That’s because Proposition 29 was never intended to solve these problems. Instead, it is squarely focused on solving one of the most life-threatening problems Californians face: cancer.

Cancer is a leading cause of death in our state, killing 155 Californians every day. Smoking is directly responsible for 30% of these deaths and many more through secondhand smoke. Amazingly, the group known as Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending (backed by Philip Morris USA and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.) calls Proposition 29’s mandate to support cancer research a “narrow purpose.” We suspect that the one in two Californians who will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives consider their fight to beat cancer more than just a “narrow purpose.”  It is literally a matter of life and death, and Proposition 29 gives us a chance to tilt the balance in favor of life.

Make no mistake, Proposition 29 will benefit all Californians. As summarized in a report by the American Lung Assn., Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others, research has shown that a $1 increase in the cost of cigarettes will prevent over 200,000 kids in California from becoming adult smokers and gives them a fighting chance against cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Proposition 29 also doubles support for our state’s underfunded smoking cessation programs that help smokers to quit, which is estimated to save more than 100,000 lives from premature smoking-related deaths.

These health benefits not only save lives; they also save California taxpayers money. California's cigarette tax is currently a mere 87 cents, but smoking costs taxpayers more than $15 for every pack sold, according to a report compiled from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Also according to the CDC, annual healthcare expenditures in California directly caused by tobacco use total a staggering $9.1 billion. Furthermore, Proposition 29 is estimated to result in more than $5 billion in long-term savings that accrue over lifetimes of persons who stop smoking or never start because of the tax increase.

What’s more, Proposition 29 delivers a one-two punch against cancer—not only by reducing smoking but also by investing in life-saving medical research. More than $500 million will be invested annually in medical research in California, at California facilities and supporting California researchers and patients.

This funding will dramatically accelerate the movement of scientific discoveries to clinical trials for patient benefit.

This is not just an investment in the health of Californians, it’s an investment in the health of the California economy. Despite what Proposition 29’s opponents might claim, the American Cancer Society and American Lung Assn. included clear language in Proposition 29: Funds generated by Proposition 29 are to be used in California—funds that will boost our state’s economy and, according to a 2012 UC San Francisco study, create an estimated 12,000 new jobs.

Proposition 29 is very simple. It fights cancer, saves lives, keeps kids from smoking and boosts our state’s economy. Don’t let Big Tobacco blow smoke in our eyes.

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Sherry Lansing, chairman of the University of California Board of Regents and former chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group, is co-founder of Stand Up to Cancer. Kristiina Vuori, M.D., Ph.D., president of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla and director of the institute's cancer center, is a member of the Stand Up to Cancer/Melanoma Research Alliance Dream Team and on the board of directors of the American Assn. for Cancer Research.

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