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Tobacco company ads take aim at Proposition 29

The June 5 ballot initiative would raise cigarette taxes by $1 a pack to fund tobacco-related disease research. Its supporters lack the funds for a comparable campaign.

May 12, 2012|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Lance Armstrong with supporters of Proposition 29 Friday at Children's Hospital.
Lance Armstrong with supporters of Proposition 29 Friday at Children's… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Every morning when UC San Diego physicist Herbert Levine laces up his running shoes and chugs alongside Mission Bay, his earphones crackle with radio ads opposing a proposed $1-per-pack cigarette tax to raise money for cancer research.

The ads are funded by the tobacco industry. They call Proposition 29, the tobacco tax that state voters will consider on the June 5 ballot, a bureaucratic boondoggle, an initiative that would raise mountains of cash for research but not a penny for treatment.

"They're saying cancer research is bad? It's a strange message,'' said Levine, whose own work relies on the fundamentals of physics to help unlock the mysteries of cancer.

He's leaving next month for Rice University, lured away in part by the fruits of a $3-billion bond measure Texas voters approved in 2007 to fund the study and treatment of the disease.

The Texas success helped inspire the American Cancer Society, former Democratic state Sen. Don Perata and others in California to launch a similar campaign in Proposition 29 — but with a big difference. They hitched it to a new tobacco tax.

The upside, they say: Along with raising more than $800 million for research on tobacco-related diseases and prevention programs, the hike in cigarette prices will stop 220,000 kids from starting to smoke and encourage 100,000 current smokers to quit.

The downside? Two of the nation's largest tobacco companies — Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. — and their affiliates have spent more than $30 million against the initiative thus far, dwarfing the $4 million raised by proponents.

"These guys aren't going to lie down,'' said seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, whose Livestrong Foundation spearheaded the Texas campaign. "The goal is saving lives. Period. We are 100% sure that this will do that.''

The Proposition 29 campaign, Californians for a Cure, is relying heavily on social media, including blasts to Armstrong's 3.4 million followers on Twitter, and husbanding its limited funds by airing 15-second television ads and staffing volunteer phone banks. Livestrong contributed $1.5 million to the campaign, with other major backing coming from the American Cancer Society andAmerican Heart Assn.

The tobacco companies have remained in the background, allowing a coalition of taxpayer and business groups to be the public face of the opposition. Their committee, Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending, unleashed an onslaught of mail and other ads attacking the initiative for allowing the proceeds to be used out of state and raising money for research instead of treatment.

"We have major budget problems in California. More than 2 million Californians are unemployed, and instead of addressing those issues, this would fund an entirely new bureaucracy,'' said David Kline, spokesman for the California Taxpayers Assn.

Voters were stung by a similar initiative in 2004, when they approved a $3-billion bond measure for stem cell research, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. The stem cell agency, already short of money, paid its part-time chairman a salary of $400,000 annually and hired former California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres at $230,000 a year to serve as one of the institute's vice chairmen.

"The fact that this creates a new bureaucracy should be a red flag to everyone," Coupal said.

Proposition 29 supporters call the ads and criticism a ruse, orchestrated by tobacco companies that expect to lose nearly $800 million a year in cigarette sales if the initiative passes.

"They are trying to protect their profits, which go out of state,'' said Jim Knox of the American Cancer Society. "They deceive and lie about their deadly product. It's what they do.''

Knox cited a recent tobacco-funded television ad featuring Northern California doctor La Donna Porter. Major medical organizations have backed Proposition 29; but in the ad Porter, dressed in a white lab coat, criticizes the measure for "creating a huge new research bureaucracy with no accountability.'' Porter was featured in a similar tobacco-funded ad in 2006, when cigarette companies successfully fought off an effort to hike tobacco taxes.

It's because of the companies' political muscle, Knox said, that Californians haven't approved a tobacco tax at the ballot box in 14 years. The Legislature, awash in campaign contributions from tobacco interests, hasn't raised tobacco taxes since 1994.

If approved, Proposition 29 would raise an estimated $860 million a year, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst's Office.

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