06/05/2012 01:07 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

A Vote to Save Lives

How often are voters given the chance to cast a vote that will save lives? On June 5, the people of California will have an opportunity to do just that -- and to save the financially struggling state billions of dollars in long-term health care costs.

The California Cancer Research Act -- known as Proposition 29 -- would raise the state tobacco tax by $1 to fund more than $500 million each year in lifesaving research on cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, help keep cigarettes out of the hands of children and save the state more than $5 billion in long-term health care costs related to tobacco use.

These are proven public health and economic benefits, backed by extensive research from our organizations and others. We know that when you raise tobacco taxes, people stop smoking. Prop 29 would save more than 100,000 lives annually in California and prevent 228,000 kids in the state from becoming addicted smokers.

Who would oppose a measure that will save lives and money? The tobacco industry -- whose business model depends on profiting from the deaths of its customers. Big Tobacco earns $6,000 in profits for every tobacco-related death in the United States and around the world, according to The Tobacco Atlas, published by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation. As a result, the six leading tobacco companies made a collective profit of $35.1 billion in 2010, the equivalent of the earnings of Coca Cola, McDonald's and Microsoft combined.

The industry doesn't publicize that its products are responsible for the deaths of 443,000 people in America each year -- nearly one person for every minute of every day. In fact, tobacco companies engage in extensive efforts to portray themselves as responsible corporate citizens. The nation's largest tobacco manufacturer, Altria Group, Inc., recently ran a full-page ad in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication aimed at members of Congress, claiming that it markets its products "responsibly" and that "we take our responsibilities seriously."

What the ad didn't say is that tobacco use costs the U.S. economy $193 billion per year in health care, lost productivity and related costs. Every day, 3,800 kids pick up their first cigarette, 1,000 kids become addicted smokers and 1,200 people die from tobacco-related disease.

While tobacco companies work to publicly rehabilitate their image, they discreetly oppose proven tobacco control policies nationwide. The latest example is the industry's funding of groups with innocuous names, such as Californians Against Unaccountable Taxes and California Taxpayers Association, that are working to confuse and deceive the public about Prop. 29.

In addition to saving lives and reducing future health care costs, Prop. 29 would create 12,000 new jobs at research facilities and health centers in California, a state facing the most severe financial crisis in the country. But the tobacco industry is waging an intense campaign to defeat the initiative because it knows that increasing tobacco taxes will shrink its customer base. When your business model involves selling products that kill people, it becomes particularly important to addict a steady stream of new customers.

The hazards of smoking have been known for decades. Unfortunately, that awareness has given rise to a dangerous complacency in response to the tobacco industry's ongoing campaign of addiction and death. The industry is waging its campaign with increasing intensity in unsuspecting countries around the world. By the year 2030, eight million people worldwide will die from tobacco use each year.

It's not enough to say that we already know tobacco use is dangerous, or to conclude that everyone should be able to say "no" to tobacco. Ask the families of the nearly half a million people in the United States who die from tobacco-related causes each year how easy it would have been for their loved ones to quit. Ask the parents of children who are bombarded with positive images of smoking at convenience stores and popular hangouts how simple it must be to keep youth from smoking.

Tobacco use is the single biggest public health threat facing our country today. And it is hiding in plain sight. Tobacco companies manufacture 1 million cigarettes every 5 seconds. They are not backing down, and by supporting Prop. 29 and other proven tobacco control measures nationwide, neither are we.

John R. Seffrin, PhD
CEO, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the American Cancer Society

Lance Armstrong
Cancer survivor and Founder and Chairman, the Lance Armstrong Foundation

Michael Bloomberg
Bloomberg Philanthropies and Mayor of New York City