It’s high time to increase cigarette tax

jtarica@thetribunenews.comMay 19, 2012 

California, once a trendsetter in the fight against tobacco, has quickly and quietly foundered to also-ran status.

Not too long ago, back in 1999, its 87-cent cigarette tax was the third-highest in the nation, according to a story this week by The Sacramento Bee. Now, in 2012, its tax is still 87 cents, and the state ranks an embarrassing 33rd, following a do-nothing dozen years that saw more than 100 tobacco tax increases take effect around the country, most everywhere but here.

That is about to change, however, thanks to Proposition 29, which aims to boost the tax on a pack of smokes by a full dollar, routing upwards of $700 million to research on cancer and other diseases.

Given that recent history of inaction alone, everyone punching a ballot without a pack of Marlboros in their pocket should lend an “aye” to this effort, because it will both deter smoking and generate funds to treat the ailments it causes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces usage among adults by about 4 percent.

So, with a rather simple step, we can generate a substantial impact in the overall health of California’s population.

Were it that simple. But, of course, it isn’t when Big Tobacco’s involved.

In a vain attempt to keep their grip on as many potential addicts as possible, R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have poured $38 million into the effort to defeat Prop. 29.

If that’s not bad enough, they have the gall to try to lump their case against a cigarette tax increase into the overall debate about California’s sorry financial state, with lame arguments like this one from their website: “Billions in new taxes, but nothing to fix the state budget.”

So if the new taxes went to schools or roads or police, they’d be OK, huh? Because everyone knows just how concerned Big Tobacco is about the health of our state.

The only health-related thing R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris care about is raising a sufficient number of new customers to replace all the ones they kill every day.

But oddly enough, this argument actually has influenced some supposedly right-minded observers, including the Los Angeles Times, whose editorial board opposed the proposition precisely because the money goes to a mandated use and not the general fund.

Get over yourself, L.A. Times. Don’t think this initiative is or should be some magical answer to our fiscal crisis. It simply is what it is: an overdue effort to further reduce smoking rates while making an appropriate use of the money raised.

And even with it, we’ll still be a far cry from the national cigarette tax leaders. Five states levy a tax of $3 per pack or more, according to the CDC, with New York leading the charge at $4.35.

If you still doubt just how effective that price deterrent can be, check out the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released this week. In 2004, 20.4 percent of adults aged 18-25 smoked daily. By 2010, that number had fallen to 15.8 percent. Among the forces propelling that change, according to the report, were “substantial increases in cigarette taxes.”

Do you need a better argument than that?

As Jim Knox of the American Cancer Society told The Bee, “This measure is not going to solve the state budget crisis. It is not a cure for global warming. There are a lot of things it doesn’t do. This measure is intended to raise the tobacco tax to protect kids from smoking.”

That’s good enough for me. It should be good enough for you, too.

Joe Tarica is The Tribune's presentation editor.

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