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Tom Steyer donates $1 million to California initiative to raise tobacco tax

Tom Steyer

Billionaire Tom Steyer talks with reporters in Sacramento in August. On Thursday, he donated $1 million to the campaign for a ballot measure to raise the tobacco tax in California.

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer on Thursday contributed $1 million to support a proposed ballot measure next year that would raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack in California.

Steyer, a potential candidate for governor in 2018, said his donation to the Save Lives California group’s campaign is aimed at addressing health concerns over smoking.

“We have a moral responsibility to stand up to tobacco companies and keep kids from becoming lifetime smokers, and we can do that by raising the tobacco tax,” Steyer, a Bay Area philanthropist, said in a statement.

The campaign seeking to put a tobacco tax measure on the November 2016 ballot includes the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Assn., the California Medical Assn., the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union.

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The money raised would help pay for treatment of and research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. The state Legislature failed this summer to approve a bill that would put a tobacco tax increase on the ballot.

The tobacco industry has spent millions of dollars to defeat previous ballot measures to raise the tobacco tax, including one in 2006.

That year, the industry spent $66.6 million and defeated a ballot measure that would have raised the tax by $2.60 per pack. Supporters that year only spent $14 million.

Californians currently pay 87 cents per pack in state taxes, far less than New Yorkers, who pay $4.35 a pack.

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“Big Tobacco profits from a product that kills millions of people around the world every year and is the leading cause of preventable death in California,” Steyer said. “The best way to prevent these smoking deaths is by protecting children from ever becoming addicted to this deadly product in the first place.”

A spokesman for the tobacco giant Altria recently said his company is reviewing the initiative.

The campaign, which previously received a $2-million loan from the California State Council of Service Employees, is expecting to have its summary and title approved Dec. 15, after which it will have 180 days to collect the signatures of 365,880 registered voters to qualify the measure for the ballot.

The donation provided Thursday is expected to help the signature-gathering effort.

“It’s a significant boost to the campaign,” said Michael Roth, a spokesman for Save Lives California.

Asked if the campaign will have to exceed what it raised in 2006, Roth said: “We are going to spend whatever it takes to win and we are going to have boots on the ground.”

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, contributed $74 million last year to candidates who pledged to fight global warming.

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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