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Californians backing cigarette tax boost, even though Big Tobacco spending millions

Tobacco companies are spending millions to stop a cigarette tax increase in California that public health officials say would save thousands of lives a year. California Department of Health Services

Despite Big Tobacco spending US$71 million to snuff out Proposition 56, an initiative to raise cigarette taxes by $2, 56 percent of Californians said they planned to vote yes just 13 days before the election.

California is the biggest tobacco market in the country, but at just 87 cents, it has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country. That low tax makes cigarettes more affordable and boosts tobacco sales and profits.

Prop 56 will cut tobacco sales by a quarter of a billion dollars a year, which will take a hefty chunk out of Big Tobacco’s profits.

Only tobacco companies are fighting the tax

Virtually all that $71 million spent on the ballot measure came from tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, with a little help ($1.5 million) from from England’s Imperial Tobacco.

But the tobacco companies’ deceptive ad blitz has hardly moved public opinion, which was at 59 percent six weeks earlier.

The tobacco companies even ran an ad in which a “white lady gardening,” who bore a remarkable resemblance to actress Kathy Griffin, urged people to vote against Prop 56. In that ad, the woman gardener urged people to “follow the money” and said that “… most of the annual $1.4 billion in new tobacco taxes goes to health insurance companies and other wealthy special interests.”

In response to that ad, Griffin posted a video to set the record straight, saying she did “follow the money” and found that Big Tobacco paid for the ad.

Kathy Griffin’s video setting the record straight on following the money in Prop 56.

Saving $1 billion a year in medical costs

While Prop 56 will cost the tobacco companies money by cutting smoking (and other tobacco use, including e-cigarettes), it will save Californian citizens, taxpayers, and businesses $1 billion a year in heath costs.

Moreover, people who quit smoking stop sending 80 percent of the money they spend on cigarettes out of California to the big tobacco companies. Instead, they will spend the money on something else and California will gain 8,600 new jobs and nearly $700 million in economic activity.

And that does not include the effect of the 13 percent of the tax allocated to reinvigorate California Tobacco Control Program, which will make smoking drop even faster.

Smoking is the country’s number one cause of preventable death, contributing to more than 30 kinds of cancer, heart disease, emphysema and chronic lung diseases.

Colorado and North Dakota are voting on similar cigarette tax increases on Nov. 8. And Missouri is voting on two tobacco tax increases backed by tobacco interests to prevent effective tax increases that health groups are opposing. With a population of 39 million, however, California often sets trends for other states.

The combined effect of the price increase and reinvigorated tobacco control program could make California the first state to reach former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s vision of a smoke-free society.

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