Proposition 29, which would impose a $1-a-pack cigarette tax, is a deeply flawed initiative, and its defeat — which appears likely, though there are many ballots yet to be counted — would be a good thing for California. But even better for the state would be a new cigarette tax initiative that does it right.
We urged voters to cast ballots against Proposition 29 because at a time when the state cannot afford to fulfill its most basic responsibilities, the initiative would have put most of the new revenue — more than $500 million a year — toward an entirely new agency and a new state function: the funding of disease research that already is relatively well funded by the federal government. There also were concerns about how this agency would function, with insufficient oversight by the state and a board made up mostly of representatives of the same institutions that would be in line for its research grants.
But our objections to the specifics of Proposition 29 do not mean that we don't support a new cigarette tax. We do. A sizable body of evidence shows that such taxes reliably reduce smoking rates and prevent young people from taking up the habit. At 87 cents a pack, California's cigarette taxes are lower than those in most other states.
It's true that a cigarette tax is a form of social engineering practiced on one particular group of people — smokers — who tend to have lower incomes. But smoking is more than an individual decision in which the individual pays the price. California taxpayers shell out about $3 billion a year, largely through Medi-Cal and Medicare, to treat people for smoking-related diseases.
And no one has to pay this tax. People could choose to stop smoking instead. That would mean no money coming in from the tax — a consequence the state would live with happily and healthily.
Both of these factors offer possible ideas for structuring a new initiative. As Proposition 29 would do, part of the money should go toward smoking prevention programs, as well as for smoking cessation treatments. The rest could productively be spent on treatment for smoking-related diseases, so the people who pay the tax receive the direct benefit and the state budget gets some relief.
Self-interested tobacco companies spent in the neighborhood of $47 million to defeat Proposition 29, an advertising blitz that coincided with a remarkable drop in support for the measure. Proponents of the cigarette tax complained that the opposition campaign had managed to shift the conversation from tobacco and cancer to how the money would be spent. That campaign might not have been quite so successful if the initiative's authors hadn't provided so much to criticize. A better initiative should be harder for Big Tobacco to attack.