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Proposition 29, Proposed Tobacco Tax, Pits Lance Armstrong Against Major Cigarette Companies

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LOS ANGELES — Early election returns showed Californians divided Tuesday on whether to slap an additional $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to fund cancer research.

With 8 percent of precincts reporting, Proposition 29 was eking out a narrow lead with 52 percent of the vote.

The attempt to increase cigarettes taxes in the nation's most populous state has attracted nationwide attention, with tobacco companies helping to raise $47 million to quash the effort and celebrities like cycling legend Lance Armstrong urging voters to support it.

Tobacco taxes have been proven to reduce smoking. But opponents say the initiative would create an unaccountable bureaucracy and hurt the economy by sending tax money raised in California to other states.

An extra tax in the nation's most populous state also could mean major losses for tobacco companies.

Voter support for the initiative began falling this spring after the opposition campaign launched a flurry of radio and television commercials, one of which featured a Central Valley physician.

The Public Policy Institute of California found that support for the initiative dropped from 67 percent in March to 53 percent by late May.

Industry and anti-tax groups say the initiative could impose a future burden on taxpayers and could send research dollars out of state because it does not dictate where the money must be spent.

Supporters insist the tax revenue would stay in California and create jobs. They say tobacco companies are inventing arguments to obscure their true motive – safeguarding profits.

The tax would generate about $735 million a year in revenue, according to the independent legislative analyst's office.

Armstrong and a coalition of anti-smoking groups raised about $18 million to bolster the measure. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $500,000 to the campaign to help offset the industry donations.

At polling places around the state Tuesday, voters on both side of the issue expressed strong convictions.

At a sleepy poll site in Long Beach, attorney Susan Hyman cast her ballot for a new tobacco tax without hesitation.

"I think that we should aggressively discourage smoking – make it less convenient, make it more expensive," said Hyman, a Democrat.

At a nearly abandoned polling site at a parochial school in the Los Angeles area, Craig Jerpseth, 43, said he's voting against anything or anyone who might mean more taxes.

"I hope we don't get any more taxes. That's pretty much it," said the Glendale nurse.

A slew of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have opposed the measure while proclaiming their reluctance to side with tobacco companies. They argue that the revenue should go to the state, which Gov. Jerry Brown announced last month now faces a deficit of $16 billion.

With a smoking rate of 12.1 percent, California has not raised these taxes since 2000. If the measure passes, California would still have only the 16th highest tax rate in the nation.

Tobacco companies spent $66 million to defeat another tobacco tax measure in 2006.

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