Smoke rises from a cigarette in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, June 22, 2012. Proposition 29, the California initiative to increase the tax on tobacco to pay for cancer research was snuffed out by voters as it failed 49.7 percent to 50.3 precent after remaining to close to call for more than two weeks. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press / SF
Cycling legend and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks at a rally in favor of Proposition 29, a measure on the June California primary election ballot that would add a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes, at a news conference at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles Friday, May 11, 2012. The money raised would go to cancer research projects, smoking-reduction programs and tobacco law enforcement. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) Photo: Reed Saxon, Associated Press
While more than 100,000 votes have yet to be counted, the Yes on Prop. 29 campaign said in a statement Friday that it was unlikely to overcome a nearly 28,000-vote deficit. As the votes were tallied over the past 16 days, the tax has been consistently losing, albeit by less than a percentage point.
The loss means that California’s tobacco tax will remain as it is: lower than 32 other states.
Still, supporters called it “the closest ballot initiative in California history” and pointed out that big tobacco companies, led by Philip Morris, spent almost $47 million to defeat the tax, which would have raised about $810 million a year for cancer research and antismoking programs.
‘Sad day for California’
Supporters, led by public health groups, raised about $12 million.
“Out-of-state tobacco’s victory was a defeat for the public health of every Californian,” the statement read. “The tobacco industry spent more than $200 for every child that they want to eventually take up smoking. It’s a sad day for California and for the millions of Californians who are fighting and will fight cancer, heart disease and lung disease.”
Officials on the no-on-Prop. 29 side said with 111,000 ballots still being counted by county registrars, they are not ready to declare victory.
“We are enormously encouraged, but we are going to wait and see until all votes are counted,” said No on 29 spokeswoman Beth Miller.
Jennifer Kerns, a spokeswoman for the California Republican Party, said the party “fought hard to help defeat Prop. 29,” not only because it would have meant a “massive” tax increase, but “would have established new bureaucracies in Sacramento that would have gone unchecked for 15 years.”
Barrage of ads
Opponents ran a barrage of television and radio ads, arguing that the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products would not only create a new state bureaucracy, but that there was no guarantee the money would actually benefit California researchers.
The media blitz worked: While the tax had overwhelming support in May, when 67 percent of likely voters told pollsters at the Public Policy Institute of California they would support the measure, that backing plummeted by 14 points by the end of May.
Supporters, including the American Cancer Society, blamed “big tobacco’s $50 million misinformation campaign,” and said the tax could have saved more than 104,000 lives and $5 billion in long-term health care costs.
“We want to be very clear: This setback will not slow our ongoing efforts to keep tobacco out of the hands of children and to help all those suffering from the devastating effects of smoking,” the statement read. “Prop. 29 would have saved lives; big tobacco’s sole mission is to profit from them.”
Stanton Glantz, a tobacco researcher at UCSF who supported the tax, said he is disappointed that the yes campaign conceded defeat, given how close the vote still remains. He urged public health groups, which lost a similar campaign in 2006 and have repeatedly failed to persuade lawmakers to raise the tobacco tax, to keep trying.
Glantz does not believe the substance of the initiative was the problem. He blamed media coverage, including a high-profile “no” endorsement by the Los Angeles Times. In Los Angeles County, the measure lost by half of a percentage point; in San Francisco, by contrast, it won with nearly 74 percent support.
“The fact that it’s a squeaker, given the amount of resources thrown at it, is kind of incredible,” Glantz said. “It shows that if you have enough money and are willing to lie, you have the First Amendment to protect you. Even if the measure had been written differently, they just would have made something else up.”