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$2 more for cigarettes? California tobacco tax proposal revived in special session

$2 more for cigarettes? California tobacco tax proposal revived in special session
California is proposing to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack of cigarettes. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

A proposal to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack of cigarettes in California was given new life Wednesday when legislation was introduced as part of a special session on healthcare.

The measure would also extend the tobacco tax to electronic cigarettes.

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Supporters say the proposal has a better chance of passing than one that stalled in the regular legislative session, because the $1.5 billion that is projected to be raised by such a tax could help the state pay for healthcare costs for low-income residents, a key goal of the special session.

Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), author of the measure, noted that California's current 87-cents-a-pack cigarette tax is lower than that of most other states and far lower than that in New York, which levies $4.35 a pack. (The federal government also puts a $1.01 tax on cigarettes.)

The Save Lives California coalition — made up of groups including the California Medical Assn., the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union — said that if the Legislature fails to muster the two-thirds vote to pass the tax, it will put the proposal on the 2016 ballot.

"We know raising the tobacco tax has been proven to prevent and reduce smoking, especially among young people," Pan, a physician, said at a coalition rally at the Capitol on Wednesday.

He said 40,000 people die each year in California from tobacco-related diseases, and treating such illnesses costs taxpayers $18.1 billion annually.

A Field Poll released Wednesday indicates that a $2-a-pack tobacco tax to pay for healthcare costs is supported by 67% of California voters.

The tax is one of several anti-tobacco bills being considered during the special session, including one that would raise the smoking age to 21 and another to restrict the use of electronic cigarettes in public.

"The special session is an opportunity for lawmakers to take long-overdue action to prevent young people from falling prey to the No. 1 cause of preventable death in California: tobacco addiction," said Claudia Alvarez, a family medicine resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

Jennifer Kent, who is Gov. Jerry Brown's appointee as director of the California Department of Health Care Services, said in an interview that "to the extent we have an ongoing need for revenues, we're obviously willing to consider both this tax and any other revenue sources."

She said the state is "interested and willing and able to partner" with the coalition.

She said there is a strong link between tobacco use and illnesses covered by Medi-Cal, the state's healthcare program for the poor.

The tobacco-tax bill that did not pass in the regular legislative session was opposed by groups including the Cigar Assn. of America and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which argued that it would have created a regressive tax on a declining revenue source.

"At a time when state revenue has recovered and the governor says there is even a surplus, there is no reason for a tax increase," said Jon Coupal, president of the taxpayers group.

Proponents of the bill estimate that 295,000 smokers will kick the habit within a year if the tax goes up by $2 and many others will not start smoking.

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[Updated at 3:20 pm to reflect that bill was introduced.]

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