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California propositions

Proposition 56, a $2-per-pack boost to tobacco taxes, is approved by voters

Pedestrians pass by a smoke shop on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles in 2014. (Los Angeles Times)
Pedestrians pass by a smoke shop on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles in 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

After voters twice turned back attempts to raise the state's tobacco tax over the last decade, California looks poised to pass Proposition 56, which would increase the cigarette tax by $2 per pack.

Proposition 56 leads 62.4% to 37.6% in late returns, according to the secretary of state's office.

"Smoking is the number one cause of avoidable death in the state of California," said Democratic donor Tom Steyer, who was the co-chairman of the Proposition 56 campaign. "We had a broader coalition to support the idea of pushing back against the tobacco companies and raising the cigarette tax than ever before. We believe that that kind of broad coalition works against organized and concentrated economic interests when we stick together and when we all turn out and vote."

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that Proposition 56 could raise at least $1.3 billion a year, with most of the money going toward the state's Medi-Cal health care program for low-income residents. 

The campaign was one of the most expensive in the state this year, with tobacco companies pouring in more than $70 million to fight the tax hike. In television advertisements, the companies criticized the measure as a payoff to the health care industry, which financed much of the Yes on 56 campaign.

But in contrast to failed efforts to raise the tobacco tax in 2006 and 2012, proponents of the tax hike were able to raise significantly more funds to promote Proposition 56.

Currently, California's cigarette tax is $0.87 per pack, which ranks 37th in the country, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, and it hasn't been raised in almost 20 years. Along with cigarettes, other tobacco products including smokeless tobacco and cigars will see a corresponding tax increase. And for the first time, the growing e-cigarette industry will need to pay tobacco taxes

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