The tobacco industry rehashes old arguments -- will voters listen?

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California is holding its primary election on June 5, and included on the ballot is an important new tobacco control measure. Public health advocates carefully crafted Proposition 29, a tax on cigarettes, to help prevent young people from taking up smoking and risking premature death from cancer and other smoking-related diseases. Unfortunately, the tobacco industry is up to its usual tricks, and its smear campaign may derail the measure.

According to the California Secretary of State, the Proposition:

Imposes additional $1.00 per pack tax on cigarettes and an equivalent tax increase on other tobacco products. Revenues fund research for cancer and tobacco-related diseases. Fiscal Impact: Net increase in cigarette excise tax revenues of about $735 million annually by 2013-14 for certain research and tobacco prevention and cessation programs. Other state and local revenue increases amounting to tens of millions of dollars annually.

Taxing cigarettes is one of the most effective tobacco control policies available to improve the public's health. Advocates say that the Proposition would benefit Californians' health and the state's finances. A study from the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids estimates that the Proposition would lower youth smoking by 13.7% (almost 230,000 youth) and save 104,500 Californians from early smoking-related deaths. California would also save more than $5 billion in health costs from the lower rates of youth and adult smoking.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry is not interested in losing children as smokers, as they target young people in the hopes that they become lucrative, life-long customers. Many of the arguments the industry has trotted out are bald falsehoods. For example, one of its key appeals is that voters should reject the measure because the measure "allows our tax dollars to be spent out of state." This argument has been debunked by tobacco control scholars like Stan Glantz who points out that "The research money would be managed by a committee consisting of the UCSF, UCB, and UCSC chancellors, cancer center directors and other experts and stakeholders ... . The truth is that Prop 29 makes it very clear that this is for tobacco control and cancer and medical research in California."

Other arguments rehash Big Tobacco's standard bag of dirty tricks. For instance, industry complains that voters should reject the tax because the funds raised would support tobacco & cancer related research, and not education. Of course, public education should be a priority for California. But the last time the industry claimed it cared about public education, it gave students book covers that encouraged them to start smoking! What's more, for decades Big Tobacco claimed that the scientific record was incomplete and that additional research was necessary to show that smoking causes cancer in order to defeat policies that would regulate tobacco.

Industry has also used one of the oldest tricks up its sleeve: It prominently featured La Donna Porter, a physician on the state health board, in its commercials advocating against the tax. (Porter was removed from the board for her advocacy.) This strategy dates back a whopping 60 years! In 1954, Big Tobacco established the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, a "group of distinguished men from medicine, science, and education." In reality, the TIRC was little more than a public relations front for the industry and was not concerned at all with scientific integrity.

As Californians head to the polls, I'll be eager to see whom they believe -- advocates seeking to prevent hundreds of thousands of children from potentially dying prematurely from cigarettes, or the tobacco industry, which has spent $40 million to see that they do.


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