Higher tobacco tax? It’s still a no-brainer

California's tax is 87 cents per pack, well below the national average of $1.46.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — Regardless of the final vote tally, Proposition 29 dealt a serious blow to the tobacco industry.

That’s my view, at least. It requires, admittedly, an assumption that is hardly rock solid: that the Legislature will conjure up the guts and integrity to raise tobacco taxes even if California voters didn’t.

At this writing Wednesday, the outcome was too close to call. Proposition 29 trailed narrowly, with perhaps several hundred thousand absentee ballots yet to be counted. But the odds were against it.

If the ballot initiative won, the sponsoring American Cancer Society estimated, 220,000 kids would never start smoking and 100,000 adults would quit rather than pay the extra $1 per pack to fund research on tobacco-related diseases. That would cut deeply into tobacco’s profits.

The most likely scenario is that the conveyors of cancer will triumph in this fight.

Then Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature would command the high ground to attack and win the next battle. They’d have the tobacco lobby right where they wanted it: vulnerable to a hefty tax increase anyway.

But Californians voted against hiking tobacco taxes, you might say. No. Show me anywhere in their $47-million worth of baloney advertising where the anti-29 forces argued against raising the levy on cigarettes.

The campaign never was about a tobacco tax, or at least the industry claimed.

In truth, for cigarette makers, Proposition 29 was only about one thing: a threat to their merchandising of death, to their addicting of teens and to keeping adult customers hooked on a poisonous product. Big Tobacco really didn’t give a used butt about anything else.

Tobacco’s cooked-up rationale for opposing Proposition 29 was that it would create “another costly new bureaucracy” — “another new spending program” and “allow California tax dollars to be spent in other states and countries.”

I won’t bother to counter those specious claims. Suffice that they were balderdash.

There was also an especially audacious argument that Proposition 29 “duplicates existing programs.” In fact, the federal government and private foundations cut back on cancer research during the recession. The state doesn’t run a cancer-research program.

But no matter now.

My point: The tobacco crowd never protested against raising cigarette taxes. That wasn’t the issue framed for voters. It wasn’t what they were asked to vote on.

The closest it came was the actor in the white lab coat claiming in a TV ad that Proposition 29 would impose “nearly a billion dollars in new taxes on California.” Actually, it was about $800 million; unsaid was that it would be only on tobacco users.

OK, the governor and the Legislature are desperately confronting a budget deficit that has grown to $15.7 billion.

It should be a no-brainer to partially close the hole with a higher tobacco tax. Based on the anti-29 campaign, the cigarette makers shouldn’t object.

California’s tax is 87 cents per pack, well below the national average of $1.46. We rank 33rd. Texas’ tax is $1.41; New York’s $4.35. The average current retail price for a pack in California is $5-plus.

Our Legislature should raise the tax and funnel the money into the old bureaucracy, not a new one. Dump it into the general fund to partially plug the deficit. That’s what voters seemed to be most concerned about.

Don’t start a new spending program. Help rescue some old ones, especially healthcare for the poor through Medi-Cal. That has a tobacco nexus.

Help keep school doors open. And state parks.

Tobacco’s paid minions in Sacramento would argue that legislators couldn’t be trusted with the money. But that wasn’t their argument against Proposition 29. It was that the proposed new independent oversight commission couldn’t be trusted, that it wouldn’t be accountable to politicians.

Whatever sells at the moment.

The flaw in my scenario, of course, is that the tobacco folks have a lock on the Legislature. There have been more than two dozen failed attempts to raise cigarette taxes during the last two decades in Sacramento.

For starters, any tax increase requires a two-thirds legislative vote, a burden that afflicts few other states. Republicans won’t even discuss it. Practically all have signed some Washington demagogue’s silly pledge not to raise taxes.

Republicans collect campaign contributions from tobacco, but so do some Democrats. “The tobacco guys always had a couple of Democrats in their pockets,” the Proposition 29 originator, former state Senate leader Don Perata of Oakland, told me recently — and he’s a Democrat.

So the Legislature has been petrified and purchased.

And Brown may be mulling the effect of all this on his November ballot proposal to raise income taxes on the wealthy and the sales tax on everyone. Would a rejection of Proposition 29 mean voters are opposed to any tax increase? Would raising the tobacco tax dissuade Californians from also hiking other levies?

It’s apples and oranges. Again: There was hardly a whisper about taxes in the anti-29 drivel. Cut more spending and reform public pensions, then the voters will raise taxes.

Meanwhile, if Proposition 29 fails, the governor and Legislature should collect some courage and character and capitalize on tobacco’s disingenuous campaign.