California taxpayers bought anti-smoking ad that aired during Super Bowl

Squeezed between the Doritos and Budweiser ads during last weekend’s Super Bowl was a spot paid for with California tax dollars.

Airtime for the most expensive television event of the year is probably not the first item on which deficit-plagued California might be expected to spend money. The ad, exhorting people to quit smoking, came as Gov. Jerry Brown had proposed gutting many state healthcare services to help balance the budget.

The commercial was a part of a $14.5-million television campaign funded this year partly by a 25-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes. Voters approved the tax in 1988 to help the state curb tobacco use and its effects.

Such “lockbox” budgeting has confounded state officials for years. Because voters earmarked the cigarette tax for a particular purpose, the money cannot be spent differently.


The cost of the ad was unclear, said Colleen Stevens, head of the Tobacco Control Media Campaign at the California Department of Public Health, because it was one piece of an 18-week buy. Stevens said it aired in Los Angeles and Sacramento, but could not confirm whether it was seen in other markets.

Lori Misicka, sales manager for KTXL-TV — the Fox affiliate in Sacramento, which, like The Times, is owned by Tribune Co. — said the average price of a 30-second Super Bowl slot was $52,000 at her station. She would not say precisely how much the state’s anti-tobacco spot cost.

A sales representative for KTTV, the Fox affiliate in Los Angeles, did not return a call for information about the cost of the ad there. Typically, a Los Angeles ad buy costs several times more than the far smaller Sacramento market.

The ad “shows the excesses to which this kind of uncontrolled spending can be taken,” said Lew Uhler, president of the National Taxation Limitation Committee, noting that taxes could be raised this year and many state programs could be cut. “We should be subjecting all public expenditures to the ... legislative process.”


Stevens, for her part, said she was thrilled by the Super Bowl exposure. The game drew a record 111 million viewers nationally, according to Nielsen estimates.

“It’s one of the most viewed shows all year,” Stevens said. “People are watching it ... and they’re doing something that almost never happens: They’re paying attention to the commercials.”

She said that two decades of anti-tobacco commercials have played a major role in reducing California smoking rates to among the lowest in the nation and that the results have saved — as the ad claimed — $86 billion in healthcare costs. And she said the spot would pay off for California in the long term.