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Health, labor groups seek $2 increase in California tobacco tax

Health, labor groups seek $2 increase in California tobacco tax
Marlboro cigarettes on display at a Walgreens pharmacy last month in New York, whose cigarette tax is highest in the nation at $4.35 a pack. A coalition of medical, labor and public health groups wants to boost California tobacco taxes by $2 a pack to $2.87. (Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

A coalition of public health, labor and medical groups is launching a push for a new tobacco tax that would add $2 to the cost of each pack of cigarettes sold in California.

Supporters say revenue collected from the proposed tax hike would defray state healthcare spending, support tobacco prevention programs, subsidize University of California research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, and fund law enforcement efforts to crack down on tax evasion and smuggling.

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The proposal's backers -- including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the California Medical Assn. and the Service Employees International Union -- plan to kick off the tax campaign at the Capitol on Thursday.

"Right now our goal is to build a movement that ensures by this time two years from now ... that we have a new $2 tobacco tax," said Kimberly Amazeen, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the American Lung Assn. in California.

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Amazeen said the coalition was considering both a legislative push and a possible initiative for the 2016 ballot.

"In coming weeks, we will be working with legislative champions to come up with best strategy to move a bill forward through the Legislature in January," she said. "Californians are really ready to pass a tobacco tax now. If there are a handful of legislators who see fit to block the will of the people, we'll be ready to go to the ballot."

Currently, California taxes cigarettes at 87 cents per pack, ranking 33rd among the states, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Just short of 14% of adults in California smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the second-lowest rate in the nation.

State Senate leader Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) proposed a $2-per-pack tax hike in a 2013 bill, but the measure died in committee.

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Recent attempts to raise the tax by ballot initiative have also fallen short. In 2006, Proposition 86, which would have raised taxes by $2.60 per pack fell short by three percentage points. A 2012 ballot measure, Proposition 29, sought to raise taxes on tobacco products by $1; it was defeated by by just 0.4 percentage points.

Amazeen said the effort to raise the tobacco tax is helped this time by a broader coalition of supporters, including labor groups.

"We're going to continue to broaden and diversify our coalition, so that it's representative of Californians," she said.

David Sutton, spokesman for Altria, which owns the nation's largest tobacco company, Philip Morris, said his firm opposed the "very excessive tax increase proposal" because it would be unfair to consumers and would create incentives for counterfeit and contraband tobacco products.

Sutton said tobacco taxes "do little to solve systemic budget problems," adding that such taxes have "generally not realized the revenue that has been promised or forecast."

Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, the country's second-largest tobacco company, declined to comment.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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