Bid to raise California tobacco tax submits signatures

FILE - This June 22, 2012 file photo a smoker snuffs out a cigarette at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. A well-financed campaign whose backers include billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, medical groups and organized labor has collected enough signatures for a ballot measure to raise California's cigarette tax by $2 per pack, officials said. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A well-financed campaign backed by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, medical groups and organized labor said Monday that it collected more than 1 million signatures for a ballot measure to raise California’s cigarette tax by $2 a pack.

Steyer and other leaders of the Save Lives California coalition delivered boxes of petitions to the San Diego County of Registrar of Voters office and will do the same at county offices throughout the state in coming days in its bid to raise the tax to $2.87 a pack.

If 585,407 signatures are verified, the proposed state constitutional amendment would appear on an increasingly crowded Nov. 8 ballot alongside proposals to overturn a ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and require actors to use condoms in adult films.

The announcement came less than a month after Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to make California the second state in the nation, following Hawaii, to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. Beginning June 9, it will be a crime to sell or give tobacco to anyone under 21 — except military personnel.

The tax increase would apply to electronic cigarettes and other products with tobacco or nicotine. The measure calls for proceeds to be spent on Medi-Cal — the state’s version of Medicaid — along with anti-smoking campaigns and medical research.

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager who has contributed $1 million, said at a news conference that the campaign is personal because his mother had a three-pack-a-day habit and died of lung cancer 14 years ago.

“I think everybody in California has a family member, a close friend, whose lives have been tragically affected by tobacco … This is going to make smokers pay their fair share,” he said.

The increase would make California’s cigarette tax the ninth-highest in the nation, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group. New York has the nation’s highest state tax at $4.35 a pack, and Virginia is lowest at 30 cents.

The weighted average cost for pack of cigarettes is $5.96 nationwide. The highest combined state-local tax rate is $6.16 in Chicago, with New York City second at $5.85 per pack.

The average per-pack cost in California, which prohibits local cigarette taxes, is about $5.50, said Debra Kelley, advocacy director of the American Lung Association. The $2-a-pack increase would raise that to about $7.50 if cigarette makers pass along the full amount to consumers.

David Sutton, a spokesman for tobacco company Altria Group Inc., said it opposes large targeted tobacco and e-vapor taxes. Altria is reviewing the California initiative and considering its options, he said.

The American Vaping Association said it would work to defeat the measure but was undecided how much it would spend.

“Public health benefits every time a smoker switches to vaping,” said George Conley, the group’s president. “By recklessly campaigning to equate the taxes on deadly cigarettes with smoke-free vapor products, it is clearer than ever that so called ‘anti-smoking’ activists have officially gone off the rails.”

Backers of the tax increase contend that vaping lures young people to smoking tobacco.

The tobacco tax campaign reported this month that it spent $2.8 million during the first three months of the year and had more than $4 million in cash on hand. Major backers include the California Medical Association, California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, and the Service Employees International Union.

Seven measures have collected enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot in the state, and an eighth — placed by the Legislature — would repeal prohibitions on multilingual instruction in public schools.

The tobacco tax joins four other measures, including a proposal to legalize recreational use of marijuana, that are pending signature verification.

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