Tobacco tax initiative proposed for California

A shopper enjoys a cigarette along Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Stepping up pressure on the California Legislature to raise the tobacco tax, a coalition of health groups said Monday it will begin circulating petitions to put an initiative on the November 2016 ballot to hike the levy on cigarettes.

Two proposed initiative summaries, one including electronic cigarettes, were filed Monday with the state Attorney General’s Office, which provides a title and summary to be used on the petitions. The filing is by the group Save Lives California Coalition, which includes the American Heart Assn., American Lung Assn. in California, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the California Medical Assn., SEIU California, the California Dental Assn., Tobacco Free Kids and Health Access California.

The groups will decide later which of the two alternatives to put on the ballot.

Like the legislation, the initiatives would raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack of cigarettes to raise $1.5 billion annually for smoking prevention and smoking-related medical costs now borne by taxpayers through Medi-Cal, the state’s healthcare program for the poor.


One version is for combustible cigarettes and the other would also extend the tax to include electronic cigarettes if the state follows through with a current proposal to label them as tobacco products.

The legislation raising the tax needs a two-thirds vote to win legislative approval, which means the Democratic majority would need to secure some Republican votes.

“California doctors know that prevention is the best medicine when it comes to tobacco-related diseases,” said Luther F. Cobb, a physician and president of the California Medical Assn. “With the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Tax Act of 2016, California voters can restore our state’s leadership in research, cures and access to healthcare.”

Voters narrowly rejected a $1 tax increase on the 2012 ballot after tobacco interests spent $47.7 million to defeat the measure.

David Sutton, a spokesman for tobacco giant Altria, said “if the proposed increase went into effect, California’s cigarette tax would be significantly higher than all the surrounding states, which would likely fuel illicit trade and create a budget hole that would need to be filled with higher or additional taxes on Californians.”

Michael Roth, a spokesman for the health coalition, said it is prepared to raise tens of millions of dollars to campaign for an initiative, but that it does not mean the group is giving up on the possibility of legislative approval of SB 591 by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento).


“It is still our top priority to work that bill as we are keeping all of our options open,” Roth said.