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Lance Armstrong Tobacco Tax: Cyclist Endorses Measure To Fund Research

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LANCE ARMSTRONG TOBACCO TAX
AP

LOS ANGELES — Cycling champ and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong said Monday is backing a proposed tax on tobacco in California to fund research on cancer and tobacco-related illnesses.

The seven-time Tour de France winner joined Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to urge support for the California Cancer Research Act that would increase taxes on cigarettes by $1 a pack to raise more than $500 million a year.

Wearing a yellow bracelet made popular through Livestrong, the advocacy group that Armstrong founded after battling testicular cancer in 1997, the Texas resident said he had good reasons for co-chairing the California campaign.

"When you walk through the institutions in this state, the potential there is tremendous," Armstrong said at a news conference at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "Don't forget, whatever happens and is created or invented or changes in California goes everywhere."

Campaign co-chair and former state Sen. Don Perata said the initiative will face opposition from the tobacco industry, which has successfully defeated similar measures in California 14 times.

The price of a pack of cigarettes would rise from about $5 to $6 under the proposed tax.

As Armstrong transitions into his recently announced retirement, he intends to dedicate more time to advocacy. His past successes in those endeavors include helping get legislation passed in Texas that raised money for research and in Wisconsin that banned smoking in bars and restaurants.

Voters could decide the initiative as soon as June, if Gov. Jerry Brown is successful in persuading legislators to approve a special election on several tax extensions. A decision is expected by March 11. Otherwise, the tobacco initiative could land on the February 2012 ballot.

The tobacco tax money would go into a trust fund that could not be used for other budget items. The funds would be doled out by a nine-member oversight committee.

The governor would appoint a practicing physician and three directors of California cancer centers; the health department would appoint two advocates; and the three remaining slots would go to chancellors at University of California campuses in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Berkeley.

About 60 percent of revenue would go to research cancer and other tobacco-related illnesses such as heart disease. Another 20 percent would go to prevention programs, 15 percent to research facilities and a small amount would go to law enforcement programs that prevent sales to minors and smuggling.

Philip Morris USA has begun funding a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Out-of-Control Taxes and Spending to oppose the initiative, making contributions of more than $128,000 so far.

A call to the PAC was not immediately returned.

This time around, Perata said, the proposal will succeed because of its strict focus on putting dollars in the hands of top researchers while keeping administrative costs to 2 percent. He also noted that smoking itself is unpopular in California, the first state in the country to ban smoking in restaurants and bars.

Brown's proposed special election would call on Californians to extend higher vehicle, sales and income taxes to allay a budget deficit that is expected to increase to $28 billion over the next 18 months. A similar voter referendum failed in May 2009.

Peralta voiced concern that the special election would call on Californians to decide on tax hikes at the same time supporters of the tobacco initiative were asking approval of "a user fee" to smoke. Still, he believes California voters are smart enough to know the difference.

The act is backed by the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association and other advocacy groups.