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The Little Engine That Could : Workplace no-smoking bill keeps moving up a steep grade in Legislature

Proposition 99, the Tobacco Tax and Health Protection Act, is at risk of becoming a victim of its own tremendous success in getting Californians to stub out their cigarettes. It is threatened by the state’s grinding budget squeeze, particularly by shortfalls in programs that deliver medical care to children and the poor. But the Legislature can keep alive the anti-smoking momentum that Proposition 99 generated; to do so it must enact strong new laws to protect nonsmokers from smokers.

Proposition 99 hiked the sales tax on a pack of cigarettes by 25 cents and dedicated this revenue to several chronically underfunded services, including medical and hospital care for the poor, tobacco-related disease research and prevention and fire prevention. The most controversial of these have been smoking cessation and prevention programs. The proposition earmarked 20% of total tax revenue for the Health Education Account (HEA), the initiative’s heart. The HEA has bankrolled the state’s highly effective media campaign, which includes pointed ads on television and radio to persuade smokers to quit and nonsmokers not to start. So successful have these programs been that the number of California smokers has dropped 27% since 1988, three times the national rate of decline.

But that success has cost the state. Lower cigarette sales mean less Proposition 99 revenue and, in turn, less for maternal and child health care, for example. As a result, legislators and Gov. Pete Wilson have raided the HEA to support these services. At first they diverted a small share of the 20% funding earmarked for anti-smoking education, and did so reluctantly. But recently many lawmakers of good conscience have resigned themselves to supporting diversion of a larger share of HEA funds. From which other state account, they plaintively ask, can we fund care for the poor or disease prevention?

The continuing diversion of HEA funds is regrettable, if seemingly unavoidable, but the gains against cigarette smoking, a proven cause of cancer, need not be lost. The best strategy, in our opinion, is passage of AB 13, which would make smoking illegal in most workplaces throughout the state. The “No Smoking Permitted” signs that would appear on the walls of offices, factories and shops would do much to unhook California smokers and keep others from lighting up.

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AB 13 is this legislative session’s Little Engine That Could; to the amazement of many, it is now close to final approval despite opposition from the powerful tobacco industry lobby. Senators who nearly killed it in March may now back off, and the bill, tougher than a similar measure now before Congress, faces its last committee test in Sacramento this week. This legislation must pass.


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