A coalition of healthcare groups, joined by Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer, have launched a proposed statewide ballot initiative to raise cigarette taxes by $2 a pack.
The money raised would help fund treatment of and research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases.
The California Legislature last month postponed action on a similar tax increase to help fund Medi-Cal, the state’s public healthcare program for the needy. Lawmakers could act on the proposal when they reconvene in January.
Steyer, who has spent tens of millions of dollars backing Democrats who vow to fight global warming, adds substantial financial heft to a campaign expected to be bitterly opposed by the billion-dollar tobacco industry.
“We need to protect our kids from the dangers of tobacco, and that means we need to stand up to tobacco companies,” Steyer said.
Steyer expects tobacco companies to wage an aggressive and costly opposition campaign, and said he plans to back the measure financially to ensure California voters know what is at stake.
David Sutton, spokesman for tobacco giant Altria, which owns Philip Morris, said Thursday that the company was “reviewing the initiative.”
California currently charges 87 cents a pack in cigarette taxes. By contrast, New York taxes cigarettes $4.35 a pack.
Tobacco taxes in California have not increased since 1998, when voters approved Proposition 10, which added 50 cents a pack to support early childhood development programs. The measure was spearheaded by filmmaker Rob Reiner.
A 2006 initiative that would have imposed an additional $2.60 a pack failed. A 2012 ballot measure would have added $1, but voters rejected it.
The new initiative is sponsored by Save Lives California, a coalition that includes the American Lung Assn., American Heart Assn., the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the California Medical Assn., the California Dental Assn. and the Service Employees International Union.
The group filed the proposed initiative with the state attorney general’s office, which drafts the title and summary of the measure.
Proponents then have 180 days to gather petition signatures from 365,880 registered voters. Once those signatures are verified by election officials, the measure qualifies for the ballot.