Cigarette tax initiative qualifies for November ballot, setting off expensive opposition campaign by tobacco industry

An initiative that would raise the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $2 in California officially qualified for the Nov. 8 ballot on Thursday, setting the stage for another expensive battle between the tobacco industry and public health advocates.

And because the proposed tax would also apply to electronic cigarette products, the vaping industry is also expected to join the fray.

The Secretary of State’s Office said Thursday that a random sample of petitions turned in showed the initiative has met the 585,407-signature requirement to be on the ballot.

When California voters were asked to raise the cigarette tax in 2006, the tobacco industry spent $66.6 million and defeated the initiative, whose supporters spent $14 million. Californians currently pay 87 cents in state taxes per pack of cigarettes. In comparison, New Yorkers pay $4.35 a pack.

The new initiative is backed by health groups including the California Medical Assn. and the California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems, which on Thursday donated $9 million to the initiative campaign committee. The campaign already had $4 million in the bank.

The up to $1.6 billion raised annually by the tax would help pay for treatment of and research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. The campaign also includes the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union. 

It also has a wealthy patron in billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, whose mother died of cancer after decades of smoking. Steyer, a potential candidate for governor in 2018, has donated $1 million so far to the initiative.

“The tobacco industry addicts thousands of children in California every year, but in 2016 we can protect our children by voting for the Save Lives California initiative,” Steyer said Thursday.

David Sutton, as spokesman for tobacco giant Altria, said an opposition campaign committee has been formed.

“We oppose additional targeted taxes on tobacco and have established Stop the Special Interest Tax Grab regarding this initiative,” Sutton said.

 

A campaign against the initiative was promised Wednesdayby Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Assn., a trade group.

He said reports by the Royal College of Physicians and Public Health in England have found vaping to be less hazardous than smoking.

“It’s more clear than ever that taxing vaping like tobacco is terrible public policy,” Conley said. “California voters, including those who would otherwise support cigarette tax increases, should vote down this ballot measure in November."

Californians currently pay 87 cents per pack of cigarettes in state taxes. In comparison, New Yorkers pay $4.35 a pack.

The up to $1.6 billion raised annually by the tax would help pay for treatment of and research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. The campaign also includes the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union.

Despite past failures to approve such a tax, supporters are confident this time.

“It has been beaten back 17 times in a row since the late '90s by the tobacco companies, but we know the public supports it and we believe we have a team together that can make the arguments so this time it goes through,” Steyer said.

When asked if he was willing to match the tobacco industry in spending, Steyer indicated it would not be necessary.

“In fights with organized economic interests the ability to actually match dollar for dollar is rarely available,” Steyer said. “I think the question is, will we be able to get our message out so Californians can hear it and they won’t get confused by tobacco companies, and we believe we can.”

However, by expanding the tobacco tax initiative to also include vaping products, supporters are drawing a fight from a new group of opponents, including the Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Assn., which vowed it will “fight any ballot initiative that seeks to equate or tax vapor products like cigarettes at the ballot box this November.”

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Follow @mcgreevy99 on Twitter

 

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