Los Angeles Times

$2 more for cigarettes? California tobacco tax proposal revived in special session

August 26, 2015

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A proposal to raise the tobacco tax by $2 per pack of cigarettes in California was given new life Wednesday when legislation was introduced as part of a special session on healthcare.

The new measure would also extend the tobacco tax to electronic cigarettes.

Supporters say the new bill has a better chance of passing than one that stalled in the regular session because the $1.5 billion raised by such a tax could help the state pay for healthcare costs for low-income residents, a key goal of the special session.

Cigarette smugglers and black marketeers will certainly support this piece of legislation. Crime sky rockets and Nevada gets another boost of revenue.

Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento)  introduced the tobacco tax, noting that California’s current 87-cent-per-pack tobacco tax makes the state 33rd in the nation, far below New York, which charges a tax of $4.35 a pack. There is also a $1.01 federal tax on cigarettes.

A rally for the proposal was held Wednesday next to the Capitol by the Save Lives California coalition, made up of groups including the California Medical Assn., the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Assn. and the Service Employees International Union.

The coalition said that if the Legislature fails to muster the two-thirds vote to pass the tax, it will put the tax proposal on the 2016 ballot.

"We know raising the tobacco tax has been proven to prevent and reduce smoking, especially among young people," Pan told the nearly 100 people at the rally. He said 40,000 people die each year in California from tobacco-related diseases, and treating such illnesses costs taxpayers $18.1 billion annually.

A Field Poll released Wednesday indicates a $2 tobacco tax to pay for healthcare costs is supported by 67% of Californians.

The tax is one of several anti-tobacco bills being considered during the special session, including one raising the smoking age to 21 and another restricting the use of electronic cigarettes in public.

“The special session is an opportunity for lawmakers to take long-overdue action to prevent young people from falling prey to the No. 1 cause of preventable death in California: tobacco addiction,” said Claudia Alvarez, an SEIU delegate and family medicine resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. 

Those in the audience at the rally included Jennifer Kent, the governor’s appointee as director of the California Department of Health Care Services.

“To the extent we have an ongoing need for revenues we’re obviously willing to consider both this tax and any other revenue sources,” Kent said in an interview afterward. “We’re here and interested and willing and able to partner” with the coalition.

She said there is a strong link between tobacco use and illnesses covered by Medi-Cal.

The regular-session tobacco tax bill was opposed by groups including the Cigar Assn. of America and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., which argued it creates a regressive tax on a declining revenue source.

“At a time when state revenue has recovered and the governor says there is even a surplus, there is no reason for a tax increase,” said Jon Coupal, president of the taxpayers group.

Proponents of the bill estimate 295,000 smokers will kick the habit the first year if the tax goes up $2 per pack, and many others will not start smoking to begin with.