05/22/2012 11:15 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2012

Taxing Tobacco: Clearing Some Smoke, or, Vote Yes on California Proposition 29

If all the millions of dollars raised by the proposed tobacco tax increase proposed by California Proposition 29 were gathered up and poured down the proverbial "rathole," it would still be a good deal.

And that's why the tobacco industry hates Proposition 29, and is spending $40 million to defeat it -- which may double by the time the vote is done. While they might not like things about tobacco that the new tax-funded research will likely teach us, what they really fear is the impact on smoking. According to Dr. Stan Glantz, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and longtime "Tobacco Enemy #1,"

If 29 passes, the combination of the price increase and reinvigorated anti-smoking program will drop prevalence from the 2010 value of 11.9 percent to 8.4 percent, with drops in consumption among continuing smokers. This decline in smoking will cost Philip Morris, Reynolds and other out-of-state tobacco interests about $1 billion a year in lost sales.

It's already been shown that almost every organization opposing 29 has taken tobacco funds, directly or indirectly. It's particularly sad when non-tobacco groups like, say, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are so easily bought off, especially when their Big Tobacco-developed arguments are a mix of deception and desperation. Glantz:

The tobacco companies' main arguments against 29 are that the money will leave the state, that we don't need more cancer research and anti-smoking programs, and that there will be a big bureaucracy. The truth is that Prop 29 makes it very clear that this is for tobacco control and cancer and medical research in California. The state has also proven that it knows how to run an effective tobacco control program as well as the Tobacco Related Disease Research Program, which runs on the same model as specified in Prop 29. And in addition to cutting smoking and funding research, 29 will have a huge positive impact on the state economy because 80 percent of that $1 billion not spent on cigarettes that currently leaves the state to go back east to Philip Morris, Reynolds and their friends will stay in California, generating about $2 billion in economic activity and about 12,000 jobs.

Tobacco remains the leading cause of cancer in California, and a leading cause of many other life-threatening health problems, including heart disease and emphysema. As it's conclusively shown that higher tobacco taxes reduce use, that means less suffering and less costs, as much of smoking's economic costs are borne by taxpayers in the form of public health and social services. The tobacco industry thus has a sweet deal, pushing their products for profit and foisting the costs off on all of us, smokers or not.

From a public (and private) health point of view, as well as economically, Proposition 29 should be a slam dunk. Beyond all the corrupt tobacco industry funded smokescreens, though, there is one argument against 29 that has gained some legitimacy with more progressive-minded people: That it is a regressive tax. There is something to that, as overall, smoking has gradually become an affliction of lower socioeconomic populations. But that's no accident, and no excuse not to support it.

Recall the outrage a couple decades back when rumor spread that the CIA was bringing cocaine into the country to push it in the ghettos? That's what we allow now with tobacco (and alcohol). It's well established that tobacco and alcohol marketers target their wares for specific ethnic groups. They also push heavily to young people. Consider that addiction has even been likened to a form a slavery, with people beholden to "masters" who profit handsomely and must continue to find more victims due to increased death among their clients. This looks like a real form of "class warfare" in our country (and abroad, where Big Tobacco has always but increasingly markets aggressively as restrictions on their practices increase in more affluent nations). Obviously, they are only allowed to do this at all since tobacco is legal -- but it's really no different than if a giant corporation pushing drugs in the low-income neighborhoods, and laughing while taxpayers picked up the costs of helping the victims. Who would defend that status quo?

Somehow, however, many people have been convinced that taxing tobacco is some sort of "unfair" penalty. Its not a "sin tax" -- smoking is no sin, but can be an addiction. I've known and counseled junkies and alcoholics who've said that quitting tobacco was harder than kicking heroin or booze. As the smoking population gets less white, poorer and younger, it also becomes clearer that Big Tobacco is victimizing the poor and/our young, strictly for profit, and making all of us pay. There's nothing "progressive" or fair about that. We should do anything we can to curtail it, and since the tobacco industry has too much sway over politicians, it's up to citizens to take action via the undeniably questionable, last-resort route of public initiatives.

If tobacco is taxed too highly, the risk of black markets grows higher. But we're nowhere near that yet here. California's cigarette tax is currently 87 cents per pack (with an equivalent tax on other types of tobacco products) and is levied on cigarette distributors who supply cigarettes to retail stores; 29 would raise that by $1 per pack. California now ranks 33rd among states taxing tobacco; Proposition 29 will put us in the middle of the range.

Fight class warfare. Vote yes on Proposition 29.