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Prop. 29 and the cynical pitch for higher cigarette taxes

June 01, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • A 1985 photo of U.S. Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), shown in front of a picture of his late father, Huey Long.
A 1985 photo of U.S. Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.), shown in front of a picture… (J. Williams / The Advocate…)

The late Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) memorably described his colleagues' approach to tax policy as "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that man behind the tree."

Long didn't mean that as a compliment. But proponents of Proposition 29, an initiative that would raise taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack, seem to think it's the way to help sell their ballot measure to Californians.

A recent mailer by the Yes on 29 campaign proclaims, "Prop. 29 won't cost most Californians a penny. It's simple: If you don't smoke, you don't pay the tax."

Right on! Vote for this thing because it will deliver something you want but somebody else pays for! Don't tax you, don't tax me....

That's a pretty cynical approach, and it reflects a fundamental problem with the proposition. If the measure imposed a tax on smokers just for the sake of deterring kids from picking up the habit, that would be hard to argue with. It would also make sense to use the money raised to help cover the cost of treating Medi-Cal patients with smoking-related health problems.

But only a fraction of the money raised by Proposition 29 would go to programs designed to reduce the incidence of smoking, and none of it would go to treating Californians with lung or heart problems. Instead, the bulk of the money would be used to fund a new research program into smoking-related ailments.

As The Times' editorial board has argued, the effort to find more effective treatments for those diseases is a global one, and the federal government is heavily invested in it. But if more research is needed -- and it always is, and not just for those ailments -- it's not clear why California smokers should contribute more to that effort than those in any other state, or more than taxpayers generally. When there's a broad public interest in a federal program, the source of the funding should be broad as well. 

Smoking is a public health problem, and it's long past time for California to raise its cigarette tax as a deterrent to new smokers. That's why it's so unfortunate that Proposition 29's spending dictates are such bad policy.

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