Health officials would add $2 tax to packs of cigarettes in California

Health officials would add $2 tax to packs of cigarettes in California
Hejia Yan, 23, throws away his cigarette butt on the campus of UCLA in 2013 on the first day of a tobacco ban on the campus. State lawmakers want to increase the tobacco tax. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

After seven failed attempts since 2002, a coalition of health groups and lawmakers is once again proposing to increase the tobacco tax in California, arguing that an additional $2 per pack of cigarettes will save lives, in part, by discouraging people from smoking.

Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a physician, introduced the latest proposal, which would  generate $1.4 billion a year to fund smoking prevention, research into smoking-related diseases and expanded treatment services for Medi-Cal patients.

The measure would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and the governor's signature to be placed on the ballot. The tobacco industry has blocked past attempts, but representatives were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

Supporters say they are prepared to take it to the November 2016 ballot with a signature drive if it fails in the Legislature. The state tax on a pack of 20 cigarettes is currently 87 cents, on top of a federal tax of $1.01 a pack.

"California's tobacco tax rate is currently among the lowest in the nation with 32 other states having a higher tax rate," Pan said in a statement. "SB 591 would put California's tobacco tax rate at 8th in the nation and will restore California's highly effective smoking prevention and research programs."

The tax increase is supported by groups including the American Heart Assn., American Lung Assn. in California, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the California Medical Assn., Service Employees International Union California, Health Access California, and the California Hospital Assn.

The health groups said nearly 35,000 Californians died from smoking-related diseases in 2009 and they estimate the higher tax will save 100,000 lives.

The coalition cited a study by UC San Francisco's Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program that concluded smoking costs $18.1 billion in California – $487 for each resident -- in direct healthcare costs and indirect costs from lost productivity due to illness and premature death.

"Every day that goes by without legislation like this, California spends $49 million in tobacco-related healthcare costs, with taxpayers picking up a substantial portion of that tab," said Olivia J. Gertz, president and chief executive of the American Lung Assn. in California.