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Smokers, Politicians Struggle With Tobacco Habit

In most parts of the state, Californians appear to be kicking the tobacco habit.

Last year, 11.9% of Californians said they smoked, down one percentage point from 2009. California has the second-lowest smoking rate in the country, according to recent reports from the California Department of Public Health and CDC. Utah, where 9.1% of residents are smokers, has the lowest rate.

Another recent report paints a picture of a different kind of tobacco habit in Sacramento. The report — “Tobacco Money in California Politics“ by the American Lung Association in California — shows the tobacco industry and businesses with related interests spent almost $100 million over the past decade to influence California politicians and policy.

According to the report, tobacco industry and related business interests spent $9.3 million over the past two years to support candidates and fight cigarette taxes in California, compared with nearly $90 million over the eight years before that.

Although the tobacco industry’s spending to lobby state lawmakers slowed slightly in the last few years, it could see an uptick in 2011. This year’s statewide ballot will feature a measure proposing to raise the cigarette tax by $1 a pack to finance smoking-prevention efforts, as well as research on cancer and other smoking-linked illnesses.

California currently has a cigarette tax of 87 cents per pack.

Taxes ‘Most Sensitive Area’

“Taxes are clearly the most sensitive area for tobacco companies,” said Paul Knepprath, vice president of the American Lung Association in California. “They see the tobacco tax — like we do — as a way to reduce smoking and to prevent teens from starting. We feel if we can get them past their 18th birthday without starting the habit, chances are they never will.”

The main goal of adding a $1 to the state’s cigarette tax is to discourage smoking, according to proponents of the California Cancer Research Act, which qualified for California’s next statewide ballot. The tax would generate an estimated $500 million annually and be used to find new ways to detect, treat, and prevent cancer and other tobacco-related illnesses.

The coalition sponsoring the ballot initiative – led by the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association in California, the American Heart Association, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, Stand Up To Cancer and Livestrong – expects tobacco companies to campaign — and spend — heavily against the new tax.

A spokesperson for Altria, parent company of Phillip Morris USA, said his company is opposed to additional targeted taxes on tobacco.

“We have established Californians Against Out-Of-Control Taxes and Spending — a registered campaign committee — so that we may continue to explore and evaluate our options regarding this measure,” said Altria’s David Sutton.

Tobacco Companies Mum on Spending Report

The report detailing tobacco spending in California politics showed that in 2009 and 2010, tobacco companies and distributors contributed more than $6.5 million to political committees and candidates for the Legislature and statewide office. Two tax-related ballot initiatives accounted for most of that spending. Another $2.7 million went for lobbying on legislation.

About half of California’s legislators accepted contributions from tobacco companies or a group that represents tobacco distributors in California, according to the report. Generally, Democrats are less likely to accept tobacco money than Republicans.

Most Democrats in the state Legislature — 54 out of the 77 — said they have never accepted money from tobacco interests. Two of the 43 Republicans said they have not accepted tobacco money.

Both major party candidates for governor last year received tobacco contributions. Democrat Jerry Brown accepted $2,500, and Republican Meg Whitman accepted $25,900.

“It’s not news to anyone that the tobacco industry has a large presence in Sacramento,” said John Vigna, spokesperson for Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles). “Even though lobbyists and tobacco companies continue to contribute money, and some legislators are choosing to accept it, the good news is that smoking is going down in California. That’s ultimately a positive thing for the whole state. Health care costs go down and we become a healthier, more productive state,” Vigna said.

Two tobacco companies and two Sacramento lobbying firms representing tobacco interests were invited by California Healthline to comment on the tobacco spending report. All declined.

Smoking on Gradual Decline in State

Although the public health department’s report shows a general decline in adult smoking in California, smoking is more prevalent in a few specific demographic groups. Eighteen percent of African-American males are smokers, and the smoking rate among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young adults is 43%.

The percentage of California smokers has been gradually declining since 1988, when voters passed the first of several statewide anti-smoking initiatives. In 1988, Proposition 99 added a 25-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes. Part of the new tax revenue was used to fund California’s comprehensive anti-smoking campaign.

In 1998, voters approved Proposition 10 — backed by Hollywood director Rob Reiner — which added a tax of 50 cents per pack. Most of the revenue from the tax was earmarked for early childhood health and education programs.

In a 2006 campaign featuring $66.6 million of spending by tobacco interests, voters defeated Proposition 86, which would have increased the California tobacco tax by $2.60 a pack.

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