SAN FRANCISCO -- Cycling icon Lance Armstrong has, at various points in his life, played the parts of both David and Goliath. In his most recent fight, he'd better hope he's packing his slingshot.
The cancer-beating, seven-time Tour de France champion now faces one of the toughest challenges of his career: combating Big Tobacco's multimillion-dollar onslaught against a tax hike on cigarette sales in California.
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Armstrong is co-chairman of a campaign to convince California voters to approve Proposition 29 on June 5. If passed, Prop 29 would increase the cost of a pack of cigarettes in the Golden State by $1.
Revenue generated from the tax increase, which the state Legislative Analyst's Office projects could reach $735 million annually, would be used to pay for cancer research, smoking cessation programs and tobacco law enforcement.
The purpose of the proposition is twofold. First, increasing the price of cigarettes would decrease the number of smokers; the California Department of Health estimates that drop to be around 8 percent. Second, Prop 29 would create the largest cancer research fund in the country not controlled by the federal government and bring in some 15,000 new jobs.
Major medical groups such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association all support the measure, but it still faces an uphill battle due to a massive influx of cash from the tobacco industry. Prop 29's opponents have to date raised $40 million, a staggering sum compared to the $8.6 million gathered by the measure's supporters.
Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, the American Snuff Company and others have together contributed tens of millions of dollars to take down the measure. The California Republican Party and the political group Californians Against Unaccountable Taxes, which receives more than 93 percent of its funding from R.J. Reynolds, have also kicked in some cash.
A similar, albeit unsuccessful, 2006 proposition to levy a $2.60 tax on each pack of cigarettes in California was felled by a $67 million industry-funded advertising campaign. Many observers expect the current fundraising effort to at least match, if not exceed, that figure.
On the other hand, aside from medical groups, the largest donations to push Prop 29 have been $1.5 million from the Lance Armstrong Foundation and $500,000 from billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Armstrong himself appeared on the premiere episode of California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's Current TV political chat show last weekend and spoke about his efforts to support the measure. "I think this is a smart investment for the state," said Armstrong. "You have eight or nine hundred million dollars a year pumped into the economy ... [and are] bringing in the best doctors, nurses and researchers from all over the world. That has to be a great thing."
Newsom, who also supports the proposition, agreed that an increase of the state's tobacco tax is long overdue. He noted that the California Legislature has attempted to hike the tax on cigarettes 33 times over the past three decades, yet succeeded only once in 1993, when a couple of cents were tacked on for breast cancer research. "[Tobacco companies] pump in tens of millions of dollars to, in essence ... buy off politicians of all political stripes," the former San Francisco mayor told Armstrong, "so you have to go to the ballot."
Not everyone is convinced that establishing a research fund is such a good idea, however. Joel Fox, who manages the advocacy group Small Business Action Committee and runs the California political blog Fox & Hounds, worries that putting the already cash-strapped state into the medical research business could backfire. "It's just creating a program based on a revenue source that will decrease over time [as more and more people quit smoking]," Fox told The Huffington Post. "Taxpayers could be on the hook if it starts lacking for revenue."
Due to the structure of California's political system, passing any kind of revenue generation measure can be a truly Herculean effort. Since property tax measure Prop 13 became law in the late 1970s, super-majority votes in both houses of the state legislature are required to enact even the most modest tax increase.
In practice, the only way for anti-smoking activists to get something like Prop 29 enacted is to put it before the voters. And they might not be the most receptive audience.
"If history is any guide, when it comes to taxes, voters are very wary," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor and "Not So Golden After All: The Rise and Fall of California" author. "They have a tendency to vote no."
Additionally, Prop 29's placement on the ballot in June instead of November could give its opponents the upper hand. "June turnouts tend to be very low, and those who do show up to vote are of a very different cohort than the general electorate," explained Gerston. "Conservatives always vote, but moderates and liberals only really come out for November elections."
The anti-Prop 29 forces have already used their massive money haul to blanket California's airwaves with an ad campaign depicting the measure as one with its heart in the right place but problematic in execution.
In the most controversial spot, Dr. La Donna Porter stands in a doctor's office and rattles off a whole host of problems associated with Prop 29. "I'm against smoking, so I thought Prop 29 was a good idea. Then I read it," Porter says in the ad, which ran in heavy rotation on TV stations for two weeks. "It raises $739 million in tobacco taxes, but not one penny goes to new funding for cancer treatment. Instead, it creates a huge new research bureaucracy with no accountability run by political appointees who can spend our tax dollars in other states."
The ad sparked widespread condemnation from the medical community and, in a scathing editorial, the San Francisco Chronicle marveled, "It's amazing how many deceptions can be packed into 30 seconds."
Despite the backlash, advertising is doubtless having an effect. "You can't put something on the air 50 times a day and not expect voters to be moved by it," said Katherine McLane of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "It's hard for a group of nonprofits to counter that."
Although the Chronicle came out in favor of Prop 29, the Los Angeles Times, the state's highest-circulation newspaper, isn't a fan. In an editorial last month, the Times argued that revenue from the tax would do more good directed into the state's general fund, a view that professor Gerston shares.
"Proposition 29 is well-intentioned," the editorial says, "but it just doesn't make sense for the state to get into the medical research business to the tune of half a billion dollars a year when it has so many other important unmet needs."
Take a look at ads both for and against Prop 29 below: