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How to fight a cigarette tax: Start with $40 million ...

May 08, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • A California initiative targets cigarettes for increased taxation.
A California initiative targets cigarettes for increased taxation. (Los Angeles Times )

Been hearing a lot of chatter lately about the cigarette tax on the June ballot? Maybe a lot more of it has been against the tax, compared with the number of ads for it?

That would make sense. As if the "No on Proposition 29" campaign had been lacking for money before, when it had about $23 million, most of that from big tobacco companies, it received a new infusion of more than $15 million, almost all of it from those same companies. It now has close to $40 million.

As it happens, The Times also urged a "no" vote on the proposition, but for very different reasons. The editorial board would love to see a new tax on cigarettes because studies have demonstrated clearly that such taxes reduce smoking rates -- and thus reduce suffering and premature death. The killer is that none of this $735 million a year could be used for schools that are being forced to cut the academic year by two weeks or possibly more, for medical treatment for sick people who don't have health insurance, for community colleges where 140,000 first-time students couldn't find a single seat in a class -- and that doesn't count the many more who couldn't get the right courses, or enough courses to attend school full time -- or for any of the other huge gaps in state services.

Of course, if the initiative were well written, if it did use the money in ways that Californians would receive immediate and direct benefit, the tobacco companies would still be throwing millions into a campaign to kill the tax. They know that cigarette taxes keep a significant number of people from engaging in a deadly habit.

By way of postscript, much has been made on both sides about whether the initiative would send the money out of state, and both sides have misstated the matter to one degree or another. The proposition does include a statement of intent that it is meant to fund projects within California, but when it comes to the directives for spending the money, that language has been left out. It's quite probable that most if not all of the money would be spent in the state, considering that all of the board members are from California institutions that would like some of that funding. But it doesn't have to be.

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