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Billionaire-backed campaign launched to raise California’s tobacco tax

Billionaire-backed campaign launched to raise California’s tobacco tax
Philanthropist and environmentalist Tom Steyer speaks to the Center for American Progress' second annual Policy Conference in Washington in 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

A coalition of health groups has launched a new campaign to ask voters in November to increase California's tax on cigarettes by $2 per pack, this time enlisting deep-pocket supporters to counter a tobacco industry that blocked several attempts in the past.

Billionaire Tom Steyer, who was the nation's largest individual political donor in 2014, spending $74 million that year, is leading the campaign for the tobacco tax. He has funneled $1 million into collecting signatures to qualify the measure for the Nov. 8 ballot.

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"This is a historic opportunity to make an advance in public health," Steyer said Monday, standing with some 20 supporters in front of the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office. "[Tobacco use] is the number one cause of preventable death in California and we can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars by doing this."

The hedge-fund manager and environmental activist is seen as a possible candidate for governor in 2018, and the tobacco tax measure should raise his profile with state voters.

California's cigarette tax breakdow
California's cigarette tax breakdow

The coalition, which also includes the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union, began Monday to turn in one million signatures it says it has collected to raise the tax on all tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes.

The coalition needs the signatures of 585,407 registered voters to qualify the measure for the ballot. More than a dozen cardboard boxes containing petitions were stacked behind speakers at the press conference.

The tobacco industry is expected to fight the initiative as it has past attempts.

"We oppose large targeted tobacco and e-vapor taxes," said David Sutton, a spokesman for tobacco giant Altria, on Monday. "We are reviewing the initiative and considering our options."

California has the 36th lowest state tobacco tax in the country — 87 cents per pack — which is far behind New York, where the tax is $4.35 a pack. California's tobacco tax has not been increased since 1998.

Steyer said supporters of the initiative once again face a "David and Goliath situation" against the tobacco industry.

"The tobacco companies have successfully defeated 18 attempts in a row to raise the tax on tobacco," he said, adding that the new coalition is strong, too.

The tobacco industry defeated initiatives in 2006 and 2012, spending $66 million to defeat the 2006 measure for which supporters spent $14 million. Several pieces of legislation have also failed to move out of the Legislature over the years.

So far, the Save Lives California Coalition has raised $7 million since last year, mostly to conduct the petition drive.

Others who have so far pitched in at least $1 million each to the campaign include the California Dental Assn., California Medical Assn., California State Council of Service Employees Issues Committee and California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems.

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If approved by voters, the tax would generate $1 billion annually, with much of it going to Medi-Cal coverage for low-income Californians, as well as treatment of tobacco-related diseases and programs to reduce smoking.

Cancer and other tobacco-related diseases kill more people than car accidents, murder, suicide, alcohol, illegal drugs, and AIDS combined, said Steven Larson, a physician and president of the California Medical Assn.

"The heart of this initiative is simple: Taxing tobacco saves lives," Larson said. "Taxing tobacco gets people to quit smoking and prevents others from ever starting. The only people who will pay are those who smoke. If you don't smoke, you don't pay."

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