California voters split on $1 per pack tobacco tax

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California ballot initiative that pitted big-spending tobacco companies against cycling legend Lance Armstrong and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was too close to call Tuesday night.

In a testament to the power of a month-long onslaught of radio and television campaigns financed by tobacco companies, Californians were split on whether slap an additional $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to fund cancer research.

The measure had almost 51 percent of the vote with more than 2 million ballots cast.

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

The attempt to increase cigarettes taxes in the nation’s most populous state has attracted nationwide attention, with tobacco companies pouring in millions to quash the effort and celebrities urging voters to support it.

Tobacco taxes have been proven to reduce smoking. But opponents said 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 state also would mean major losses for tobacco companies.

Both camps said Tuesday night that they had expected a close race and remained confident.

“It’s going to be a long night, and that’s what we expected,” said Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the no on 29 campaign. “It’s been a question of the voters taking a look and deciding that they really didn’t want to support this measure, but it’s also coupled with the fact that people generally do support cancer research.”

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

Patrick Reynolds, grandson of the founder of tobacco company R.J. Reynolds and the executive director, said Tuesday night that he was feeling confident and was happy to see the measure eking out a narrow lead.

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.

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

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.

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