California Group Targets Cigarettes for Higher Tax

The Healthy California Coalition is behind a ballot initiative that, if passed in November, would make a pack of cigarettes in California the most expensive in the country. The nearly $2 billion generated annually by the increased tax would triple current state funding for cancer research and tobacco-use prevention programs.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Today, efforts to make California the most expensive place to smoke.

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MONTAGNE: The most restrictive smoking laws in the country are here in California. And for smokers, it could get even worse. Several anti-smoking groups are asking the state voters to approve a November ballot measure that would impose the highest state tax on a pack of cigarettes. Nancy Mullane reports from San Francisco.

NANCY MULLANE: The California Tobacco Market is a busy corner store. All day long, people step in to buy lotto cards and a pack of cigarettes. Andy Monger(ph), who says he doesn't smoke, and his bandmate Matt Decker(ph), who does, disagree on whether there should be a higher tax on a pack of cigarettes.

ANDY MONGER: I don't smoke. I think it's a nasty habit. I think it's a good thing.

MATT DECKER: I think it's taxing the wrong people. It's not a fair distribution of the tax, I don't think. If you're taxing people, I think it should be across the board and not just - you're not just - shouldn't penalize people for something that they do.

MULLANE: The Coalition for a Healthy California is sponsor of the November ballot initiative. It estimates that if the tax is approved, a half a million smokers in the state will quit smoking.

David Veneziano runs the American Cancer Society, California, a member of the coalition. He says with 50,000 California kids becoming new smokers each day, deterrence is the key. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Fifty-thousand Californians under the age of 18 start smoking each year, not each day.]

DAVID VENEZIANO: We can raise that tax up to $2.60. These young children are not going to be able to afford cigarettes because the price of cigarettes is going to go up to about $7.00. It's going to be expensive and people think twice. So it is a deterrent.

When the price of cigarettes goes up, the consumption goes down. There's a direct correlation with that.

MULLANE: Not surprisingly, tobacco companies are gearing up and spending money to fight the initiative. But the No on Proposition 86 Campaign is so new it doesn't have an official Web site or office. They do have a spokesperson.

CARLA HASS: As California goes, so goes the nation in a lot of ways.

MULLANE: Carla Hass is based in Sacramento.

HASS: Oh, sure we're concerned. It's a more than $2 billion tax increase. And 14 percent of our state's population will bear the brunt of that tax increase. And among those 14 percent, several, you know - I don't know the percentage, but there is a large percentage I'm sure - that are lower income.

MULLANE: If the proposition is passed, it's expected there will be more attempts to smuggle cigarettes into the state by way of Internet sales and other means. But Anita Gore, of the California Board of Equalization says her agency is prepared.

ANITA GORE: In times where we have seen tax increases on cigarettes, we have seen an increase in the evasion aspect, because the incentive is greater. But we do have our enforcement efforts should this pass.

MULLANE: With just three months before the November elections, Proposition 86 holds a 2-to-1 lead in the polls.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane in San Francisco.

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