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Think of the tobacco tax as user fee

tobacco tax as user fee
Let’s begin with the basics: Tobacco companies are inherently evil. They peddle poison that causes cancer and addicts people to their killer products. Second, smoking is nuts. Smokers know that. Spare the lectures. Can’t stop, they say. Nonsense. Millions have. They’ll stop eventually when the nurse thrusts the ventilator tube down their throat.

I’ve been blessed. Never smoked. But for much of my generation, lighting up was a rite of passage. Cool. And tragic. Too many have died prematurely.

All that said, Proposition 29 is not an easy call — at least at first blush.

The initiative on the June 5 state ballot would tax tobacco to fund research on cancer and other tobacco-related ailments, such as emphysema and heart disease.

The state cigarette tax would be raised $1 per pack, from 87 cents to $1.87. The feds tack on an additional $1 tax. The current average retail price for a pack in California is $5-plus, the legislative analyst reports.

Our state cigarette tax is far below the national average of $1.46, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. We rank 33rd.

Prop. 29 would generate roughly $800 million annually, the legislative analyst figures. Of that, $735 million would come from the cigarette tax and fund the new research.

Comparable tax hikes on other tobacco products would bring in $50 million. It would mainly be spent on existing health and smoking prevention programs, replacing revenue sure to decline when smokers begin quitting rather than pay the stiffer prices. Up to $20 million also would be gained from a higher sales tax take.

I’d prefer that any new tax money be poured into the state’s deficit-ridden General Fund, especially to shore up healthcare for the poor. California’s safety net has been ripped and needs mending. Schools and universities also need help.

But polling indicates my preference is a political loser. Voters don’t trust Sacramento politicians to spend General Fund money wisely. They’ll only vote to raise taxes — even someone else’s — if they’re guaranteed the dollars will be used for a cause they deem worthy.

And forget about Republicans ever providing the necessary two-thirds majority vote to pass a tax hike of any kind in the Legislature. Not even all Democrats can be counted on to boost tobacco taxes.

“I tried to raise cigarette taxes I don’t know how many times,” says former state Senate leader Don Perata, the Oakland Democrat who initiated Prop. 29. “The tobacco guys always had a couple of Democrats in their pockets.

“I’m no shrinking violet. If I couldn’t get Democrats to vote for a cigarette tax, you really can’t get it through.”

So Perata and the American Cancer Society, among others, are going directly to the voters with a proposal to raise cigarette taxes that the Legislature and governor can’t touch. The money would bypass the General Fund and go straight into a special research kitty.

Critics argue this spreads the plague of ballot-box budgeting — voter decisions that tie the Legislature’s hands on taxes and spending. But Prop. 29 generates revenue that otherwise wouldn’t exist to spend. It’s not exactly tying legislators’ hands if they refuse to hike the tax when their hands are free.

I’ve always had a different problem with the cigarette tax. It’s basically cowardly, hitting smokers who are disproportionately poor and powerless.

Perata’s answer: “These bastard tobacco companies just prey on poor people and the young. I remember when I was [Alameda County] supervisor, back in the ’90s, they’d play ethnically appropriate music in East Oakland and parade out buxom women to hand out free samples.”

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