Even if that portrayal is exaggerated, it is remarkable how far society has come since that time in limiting the pernicious effects of that addictive product -- despite the worst efforts of the tobacco industry. I’ll admit that I was dubious at the outset of the anti-smoking wars, but having workplaces, restaurants, arenas and clothing free from cigarette stench is a wonderful thing. It’s gotten so that I’m even annoyed when I have to pass near one of those rancid, open-air “smoker’s lounges.”
California has been in the vanguard of those anti-smoking efforts; indeed it was Stanton Glantz at UCSF who really blew the lid off the industry’s misdeeds when he published damning internal Brown & Williamson documents to the web before they could be recovered by their corporate owners (they had been copied, and sent to him by a Kentucky paralegal).
More recently, however, our fair state has regressed to the mean, with a cigarette tax rate that ranks somewhere around the middle of all such levies. Despite clear evidence that this is one market-based policy solution (see last week) that works to discourage an irredeemably nasty habit, repeated efforts in the legislature to raise per-pack levies have failed.
Enter Prop 29, an uncomplicated initiative that raises the state tax rate on cigarettes by $1/pack, and devotes that fund to cancer research. Even in this tea-addled era of Xtreme personal freedom, who could possibly object? If the polls are right (I suspect they’re not), however, this election’s premier contest is a toss-up.
The initiative system in California dates from 1911. It is Progressive Era legislation that allows the electorate to pass or veto laws, or even amend the state constitution, by direct plebiscite. The primary difference between those two forms of action is that proponents need to get more signatures to qualify the latter. While I think that part is a mistake – constitutional provisions are more important than that – the Prop system acts as a check on the legislature’s tendency to be captured by special interests. 2008’s Prop 2 establishing certain minimum decencies for farm animals, for example, passed with a 2/3 majority, after decades of frustration for the animal welfare community. Food & Ag interests in Sacramento stymied repeated legislative efforts to improve conditions for California’s unhappy hens, sows and veal calves. Voters were not fooled by dire warnings of job flight and the specter of an invasion by inferior Mexican eggs.
So, how has Big Tobacco taken-on Prop 29? Taking a page from Big Food’s book, anti-Prop 29 promotions have totally ignored the subject, fabricated “facts” and played to fears – this time as to government bureaucracy and unaccountability. They even found a doctor to mouth their words (SFGate reported that she needs the money), and dressed some other guy in a lab coat to establish his scientific credentials. They also started early -– bombarding primetime audiences with $40 million of commercials (or so I’m told). Don Draper would be proud. The impressive list of health-based Proponent non-profits have focused on the goal of the initiative, and attempted to answer the worst of the false claims.
There is some recent evidence in these parts that campaign spending does not necessarily spell success, as Meg Whitman’s $140 million gubernatorial fiasco attests. Prop 2 was said to be a close race in 2008, as well. Here’s a hope, and a vote, that good policy sense prevails over deep pockets this time. Please make your voice heard.
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