Last Remaining Smokers Face Big Tax Hike on June Ballot

MAILANDER MUSINGS - In 1984, Garrison Keillor wrote a satirical short story for The New Yorker about "the last cigarette smokers in America" holing up somewhere along California's Donner Pass in the High Sierras.

After nearly two subsequent decades of not-so-satirical corralling of smokers, in which voters and lawmakers have systematically expelled them from restaurants, stadiums, office buildings, and even many public outdoor spaces, I located a few of the dying breed in my own neighborhood and asked them about California's Proposition 29, the June 5 ballot measure that would impose a whopping whole dollar a pack tax on cigarettes sold in the state, to hand over the expected billion-dollar a year largess to cancer researchers.

To my surprise, with three weeks before the vote, none had even heard of the proposition--and none were especially rattled by it.  After the indignities the dwindling numbers of smokers have suffered to date, they scarcely expressed outrage at all.  Despite over $50 million in campaign contributions to-date, with Big Tobacco generally squaring off against the American Lung Association, this unique fiscal measure, which would tax a specific class of consumer for medical research that might benefit the common good, is barely known in Los Feliz, and indeed throughout the city.

Earlier this week, I caught up with three smokers--patrons of the Drawing Room--near the corner of Hillhurst and Melbourne in Los Feliz.  Neither Nathan, nor Jonathan, nor Amy--none of whom are pack a day smokers--felt that the extra dollar a pack would be an undue financial burden.  "Just as long as the tobacco companies don't get any part of it, I'm fine with it," Jonathan, a well-dressed man of about thirty years of age, told me while inhaling his favorite brand.

Nathan, who said he had been smoking since he was twelve years old and who has exceeded a pack a day at times, said that the tax might even make it harder for people to smoke habitually--which he considered a good thing.

He was also a lot more imaginative about the way the money should be spent than the people who wrote the bill were.

"Maybe if it goes to cancer research, I should get some kind of a voucher for ever pack purchased," he told me.  "You know, some credit I might be able to use towards the end of my life if I require some specialized care.  If I've been paying for research all these years, maybe I should get a special part of the benefits!" he said, only half-joking.

Nathan also felt that tobacco companies were indeed villains for profiting from an addictive product, and expressed both an interest in quitting and interest in defending smoker's rights.

"We don't hardly collect any of the tax we could off of marijuana smokers.  That's the thing that feels like it might be wrong about this.  We're singled out a lot.  You can't even smoke on a public street in Burbank."

Amy smokes about half a pack a day.  Presently unemployed, she didn't see the tax as an undue financial burden.

I also stopped in on Hillhurst Cigars, a little south of The Drawing Room.  The smoke shop had a No On 29 pennant near the cash register but reported no special briefings and had no additional information about 29 on hand.

California's smokers already pay 87 cents per pack on cigarette taxes--a figure that is relatively low across the country.  Prop. 29 would add an even dollar, for the purpose of financing "research and research facilities focused on detecting, preventing, treating, and curing cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other tobacco-related diseases, and to finance prevention programs."  The California Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that it could provide an $855 million windfall for such research and facilities.

As per Governor Jerry Brown's own legislation last year, it is no longer legal to place fiscal statewide propositions on primary ballots, but this one, in the works for a while, has been grandfathered into our June 5 election.

Opposition is expected to become fierce in the final three weeks, as the opposing forces have aggregated nearly $40 million war chest to fight the bill, and will likely outspend proponents by over six-to-one.  Phillip Morris alone has donated over $23 million to the opposing effort.  

The measure requires a two-thirds majority in favor to pass, and polls have indicated that approximately that number of voters indeed favor the tax.  

Even if passed, the Legislature would not be able to spend the funds collected for fifteen years--thus providing little benefit to the public health in the short term, save the degree to which the extra cost may prove burdensome to certain smokers.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at

Tags: Joseph Mailander, Mailander Musings, Prop 29, cigarette tax, cancer, cancer research, smokers

Vol 10 Issue 40
Pub: May 18, 2012