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Opinion

Editorial:  Making the most of a cigarette tax hike

Woman smoking a cigarette
(Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images)

A bill that would more than triple the California cigarette tax was gaining little traction in the Legislature until it received a push forward from Gov. Jerry Brown’s special legislative session on funding healthcare for the poor. The additional $2-per-pack tax imposed by the bill would initially raise $1.5 billion a year.

A well-crafted cigarette tax is a thing of beauty. Not only does it raise revenue, but it helps reduce smoking rates and deters teenagers from developing a cigarette habit, preventing many premature deaths. California, whose cigarette taxes are in the bottom third nationwide, is overdue for an increase. But more than six months after the bill’s earliest hearings, the “well-crafted” part is still missing. The money raised would be reserved for unspecified “healthcare and prevention programs"; presumably, medical treatment for the poor would take up most, if not all, of it.

Given that smoking raises the rates of certain kinds of diseases, using the tax for healthcare is completely appropriate. But to the extent possible, this bill should hew to the original intentions of its supporters, which was to use the money to help the people who pay the tax: smokers. By all means, use it to provide medical care for low-income people, but first and foremost, those among them who suffer from the wide range of smoking-related diseases. California taxpayers spend about $3 billion a year to treat smoking-related illnesses; it’s fitting for a cigarette tax to pick up a big share of this cost.

Another reason for spending the money only on smoking-related diseases is that state leaders should recognize that a cigarette tax is a stopgap funding measure, not a long-term solution. As smoking rates drop, so does revenue from the tax. Supporters of the tax point out that rates of smoking-related diseases also will drop, but studies have found that this doesn’t necessarily mean overall healthcare costs will drop. A person who might have died of lung cancer might instead live to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a far more expensive ailment.

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The best reason for lowering smoking rates is so that Californians can live longer, healthier lives. Smoking is still the United States’ No. 1 cause of premature death.

That’s why, as originally planned, some of the money from a new cigarette tax should go toward smoking prevention and cessation programs, as well as for research on smoking by helping to fund the University of California’s existing Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program. The money would be particularly useful for studies on e-cigarettes, whose health effects remain little understood even as they rapidly gain popularity.

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