The Friends of Lung Cancer
By Peter Schrag
There are lots of good reasons to support Proposition 29, the tobacco tax initiative on the June 5 ballot, not least those named Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Together, the two tobacco giants have so far kicked in about $40 million to the sleazy campaign to defeat it. If you count the nearly $700,000 that the Republican Party contributed to their cause you have yet another reason.
They call themselves Californians Against Out-Of-Control Taxes and Spending but it’s probably easier to remember them as the Friends of Lung Cancer.
But because Proposition 29, another instance of ballot box budgeting, takes a revenue source off the table, and because the feds are already funding cancer research to the tune of some $5 billion annually, the issue is not all that simple.
Proposition 29 would increase the state cigarette tax from 87 cents a pack to $1.87. That would bring California from 33rd among the states in tobacco taxes– well below the national average – to 16th. Most of the additional money – roughly $810 million in the first full year after it goes into effect, probably less if it succeeds in reducing tobacco use – would go to cancer research and research on other tobacco-related diseases and smoking prevention.
All worthy goals. But given the state’s horrendous budget problems -- our underfunded schools and universities, our shredded social programs -- is this really the way we want to spend that money?
The measure’s biggest backers, as might be expected, are the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association the American Heart Association and the Texas-based Lance Armstrong (Cancer) Foundation, plus a half million kicked in last week by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. All told that comes to about $6 million to date, a tidy sum but peanuts next to what the tobacco industry is spending against it.
The star of the No on 29 campaign is a Sacramento-area family physician named La Donna Porter who appears wearing a white lab coat in TV and radio commercials declaring that the initiative creates "a huge new research bureaucracy with no accountability run by political appointees who can spend our tax dollars out of state." That’s all predictable anti-tax boilerplate.
What’s interesting in all this is Porter’s role. She and her husband have vehemently denied that she’s getting paid by the industry. In statements to a reporter for the Bay Area News Group, they insisted that she is in fact a “volunteer”, which, in a multi-million dollar campaign like this must make her nearly unique.
In 2006, she appeared in another ad opposing an increase in the tobacco tax. In 2002, she supported the chemical industry in its opposition to a proposed EPA regulation of the water pollutant perchlorate. She’s twice filed for bankruptcy.
Hardly anyone still denies the damage and the costs – personal and public – inflicted by tobacco use. Tobacco taxes hit poor people, our heaviest smokers, especially hard. But if Proposition 29 further reduces the consumption of cigarettes in California – already sharply down, from 130 packs per capita in 1970 to 26 in 2010 — there’ll be few complaints.
Yet if we’re going to increase tobacco taxes, which haven’t been raised since 2000, there are more urgent current needs for the money than cancer research and smoking prevention. Given the profile of the electorate and its common “don’t tax me” voting patterns, tobacco taxes are among the easiest taxes to increase. Why then pin it to this purpose?
Equally important, earmarking yet another revenue source to a specific objective, no matter how worthy, merely reinforces California’s long-standing autopilot spending pattern. If we’re ever going to break the state’s dysfunctional governing system that’s a habit we badly need to break.
We all know the familiar argument: voters don’t trust politicians, especially not the politicians they send to Sacramento. But the electorate can’t manage the budget at the ballot box – certainly not a budget as large and complex as ours is now. Direct democracy wasn’t designed for it.
The real problem, of course, lies in our crazy political structure – in the hyper-democracy of the initiative process, on the one hand, and the strait-jacket of super-majority voting requirements and the other impediments that ham-string representative democracy, on the other.
And under that lies a dysfunctional political culture that wants generous services at no cost, hamstrings government and then complains when it can’t address the state’s problems. Each attempt to accommodate that dysfunctional system by earmarking yet another revenue stream for a specific purpose adds to the mess.
Proposition 29 is a tough call. Increasing the California tobacco tax is long overdue, and it ought to give us all great pleasure to do it. Anything that big tobacco is against – or big pharma or big oil – is usually good enough to be for. But let’s save it for a more worthy purpose next time around. There’s a long list of underfunded programs that can badly use the money.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.