Tobacco War Coming Soon

It's officially a presidential election year, but the Republicans and Democrats aren't going to be the only ones slinging mud.

If you think the Republican presidential nomination race is getting ugly, just wait until the campaign on the proposed new tobacco taxes gets under way.

The nasty messages are likely to make the presidential stuff look like child's play.

At stake is the fate of the California Cancer Research Act, a statewide ballot initiative on the ballot in the June 5 primary election. The proposition seeks to increase cigarette taxes by one dollar per pack. If passed, the act would raise about $855 million annually in new tobacco taxes, an outcome that tobacco companies will do their best to prevent.

At 87 cents per pack, California ranks 32nd among the 50 states in tobacco taxes. As of 2010, New York was first at $4.35 and Missouri was dead last at 17 cents. The tobacco tax in California last increased in 1999, when the voters approved a 50 cent bump to the current 87 cent level. Now, looking for new revenues in a revenue-challenged political environment, anti-tobacco advocates are seeking to raise the tax.

In some respects, the ballot proposal is a weaker version of a similar proposition placed before the voters in 2006. On that occasion, sponsors asked the voters to pass a tax increase of $2.60 per pack.

The money, projected at $2.1 billion annually, was dedicated to supporting children's health and tobacco-related programs. 

Four months before the election, voters favored the proposal by a solid two-to-one margin.

By the time that the tobacco industry finished its $65 million opposition campaign, the voters were convinced the money would be spent on hospital bureaucrats, fat cat doctors and wasteful tests. They narrowly turned down the proposal.

With an adult smoking rate of 12.9 percent, California is well below the national average of 20.6 percent.

Of course, the election is not simply about smokers versus non-smokers. It's about a tax increase in what has become an anti-tax state. Whether the voters are willing to put that collective disposition aside in the name of health remains to be seen. One fact is clear: before all is said and done, the tobacco industry will make sure that its side is heard.

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