San Luis Obispo County’s top health advisory body, the Health Commission, has voted to support Proposition 29, a proposition on the June 5 statewide ballot that would increase the tax on cigarettes to pay for cancer research and smoking-cessation programs.
County supervisors also talked Tuesday about taking a stance on the controversial measure but pulled back after a constituent pointed out that they could not do so before June 5 without violating the noticing requirements of the Brown Act, California’s open-meetings law.
On May 14, the Health Commission voted 8-2 in favor of Proposition 29, after hearing arguments in favor from Steve Hansen, a local physician who pointed out that a wide assortment of health organizations support it, including the San Luis Obispo County Medical Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.
“Tobacco is killing us,” he said. “In thinking people’s parlance, this is not a hard issue.”
Hansen also ripped into the tobacco companies’ $60 million advertising campaign against Proposition 29, which he called deceitful.
Proposition 29 would increase the tax on a package of cigarettes, which is currently 87 cents, by $1, making the tax $1.87. In 2006, a similar proposal, Proposition 86, would have raised the tax by $2.60 a pack, but it lost at the polls.
According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, Proposition 29 is expected to bring in $735 million a year in new tax revenue.
The money would go into a special fund for research and prevention, including smoking prevention and cessation programs.
Penny Borenstein, the county health officer, referred to the financial aspects of Proposition 29 but said the question is at base a health issue. She cited statistics that indicate 14 percent of adults and 11-12 percent of children smoke.
Proponents of Proposition 29 have argued that individuals who smoke pay the costs individually, but so does society at large, through generalized increases in health care costs, including visits by smokers who are poor to hospital emergency rooms and taxpayer-funded payments to people who end up receiving disability benefits.
Speaker Jason Reed, who described himself as “a recovering smoker,” said the increase in cost could give a smoker an “extra nudge” toward abandoning the addiction.
One of those who voted “no,” Anne Quinn, called the proposition “social engineering” that placed an unfair financial burden on smokers, many of whom are less well off. She called smoking “the poor man’s valium,” adding, “I don’t really think you’re helping the smoker with this.”
The other dissenter, Jesse Arnold, said he would like to see more of the money go toward smoking cessation and less toward research.
Other speakers, however, said the decision should be based more on health than finances, and commissioners agreed.
At the county board meeting, Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill suggested that the board also take a position, although Supervisor Frank Mecham disagreed. Mecham questioned whether supervisors should weigh in on every ballot measure, arguing that those are individual decisions.
Hill and Gibson argued that public health is the proper purview of local government.
As this discussion was heating up, a citizen who comments regularly at meetings, Eric Greening, pointed out that the board could not discuss Proposition 29 this week because it had not been placed on the agenda, nor could it next week when the board does not meet. The next board meeting is on Election Day.