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Cigarette tax is a lifesaver

CAPITOL JOURNAL

Tobacco companies are taking aim at Proposition 29, which would raise cigarette taxes $1 a pack. But they're blowing smoke.

May 14, 2012|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • 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…)

SACRAMENTO — Cigarette makers have a certified history of deception, distortion and lying. And let's not forget fraud and racketeering.

Those aren't my words. Credit U.S. District Judge Gladys E. Kessler of Washington, D.C.

She wrote in a landmark 2006 ruling that for more than 50 years the tobacco industry had "lied, misrepresented, and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as 'replacement smokers,' about the devastating health effects of smoking."

Moreover, she said, "they suppressed research, they destroyed documents, they manipulated the use of nicotine so as to increase and perpetuate addiction, they distorted the truth … so as to discourage smokers from quitting."

The judge went on and on, and here's just one more shot: "Their lethal product" causes "an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss and a profound burden on our national healthcare system."

Kessler found the major cigarette makers guilty of fraud and racketeering under the federal RICO Act. The Supreme Court later rejected, without comment, the tobacco companies' appeal.

So, among other sins, the tobacco industry has suppressed research, distorted the truth, profited from human suffering and driven up healthcare costs.

One could argue that this sordid history does not necessarily mean they're distorting and deceiving in their current campaign ads attacking Proposition 29, the California ballot measure that would raise cigarette taxes $1 per pack to finance cancer research — and which is very likely to reduce tobacco profits by prompting smokers to quit and teens to never start.

Maybe tobacco companies can kick the habit of prevarication. Maybe a leopard can change its spots.

But voters should be a mite skeptical.

This came to mind as I watched a tobacco-funded TV ad featuring a male actor in a white lab coat. He was saying that Prop. 29 would impose "nearly a billion dollars in new taxes on California" — actually about $800 million and all of it on tobacco users — but that the measure wouldn't require the money to be spent in this state.

The anti-29 side is hitting this hard: that the research money generated in California could be spent out of state. And the politest thing possible to say about that claim is that it's disingenuous. It's stretching something that's conceivable into a virtual certainty.

The measure's text does state that "all qualified [researchers], regardless of institutional affiliation, shall have equal access and opportunity to compete for the funds."

But right up front, Prop. 29 declares that its purpose is to fund "grants and loans for … research in California to enhance the state of medical knowledge regarding … cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema and other tobacco-related illness."

And, it continues, the aim is to fund "creation, staffing and equipping of California research facilities...."

So the measure's stated intent is to create jobs, equip facilities and conduct research in California.

"The likelihood of money being spent out of state is extremely remote," says Jim Knox, California lobbyist for the American Cancer Society and chief spokesman for Prop. 29. "If it were, based on the measure's expressed purpose that could be the subject of a lawsuit."

I asked former state Senate leader Don Perata, the originator of Prop. 29, why a specific spend-in-California requirement was not included in the legal language.

"In today's global economy, it's not at all uncommon for a Stanford, a UCLA, a UC San Francisco to work in collaboration with a John Hopkins, a Mayo Clinic, a Harvard Medical School," said the Oakland Democrat, who had prostate cancer.

"Why should a pinhead like me tell one of these great institutions that it can't collaborate with someone? We want the best and the brightest to be able to work together."

The nine-member oversight commission awarding the contracts would be all-Californian and mostly tied to research institutions here. Three would be directors of major cancer centers and three would be chancellors of UC campuses that do bioscience research.

"Almost by definition, these commissioners will be looking at California research facilities," Perata said.

The anti-29 camp charges that would allow a conflict of interest in awarding contracts. But there are state laws that protect against such conflicts.

Anyway, the tobacco crowd can't have it both ways: complaining that the money could be spent outside California and also griping when the system is set up to practically guarantee that it will be spent in California.

There's a common misconception that ample cancer research already is being conducted. In truth, the federal government has been cutting back on grants.

"Fundraising has been difficult," says Dr. Judith Gasson, director of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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