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Ballot Bullies: Big Tobacco Goes All Out to Kill Proposition 56

The old-school image of a rock star was a guy smoking a cigarette, and Tris Imboden was that guy. As the drummer for the band Chicago for the past quarter-century, or on the road with Kenny Loggins or Chaka Khan, smokes were just part of what it meant to be a musician. What it meant to be cool.




Photo by Pandora Young

The old-school image of a rock star was a guy smoking a cigarette, and Tris Imboden was that guy. As the drummer for the band Chicago for the past quarter-century, or on the road with Kenny Loggins or Chaka Khan, or even writing the legendary cult surf film soundtrack Five Summer Stories with his early ’70s band Honk, smokes were just part of what it meant to be a musician. What it meant to be cool.

He started smoking at 16 and never thought it might end his career. He was a serious surfer and a runner and a drummer, the most physically demanding job in any band.

“I thought I was bulletproof,” says Imboden, speaking from his home in Malibu. “Personally, it was something that would never happen to me: I would never get sick as a result of smoking. Not me. And boy, was I dead wrong. I am one lung down to prove it. It just ain’t cool.”

In 2008, Imboden was symptom-free when he was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 3A lung cancer, attributed to smoking. Two-thirds of one lung was removed and he was given five years to live. You can do the math. Now, as a volunteer with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, he is determined to do what he can to stop youth smoking. He is an avid supporter of California’s Proposition 56, which would raise tobacco taxes by $2 per pack, and hike taxes on other tobacco products and e-cigarettes, in a bid to reduce youth smoking. The estimated $1.4 billion in new annual revenue generated by the excise tax would pay for smoking-cessation programs, especially in schools, and increase Medi-Cal funding to ease the burden on state taxpayers who pick up the cost of tobacco-related illness.

Tobacco companies have hurled themselves against this ballot initiative with force, pouring more than $71 million to date into a campaign funding radio and TV ads that have been decried as “supremely sleazy” by the editorial board of the Mercury News, and pilloried by health advocates, the Politifact fact-checking organization and other newspapers including the Los Angeles Times. The opposition campaign, titled “No on 56: Stop the Special Interest Tax Grab,” has so far been 100 percent funded by tobacco companies, with just two companies, Philip Morris (via their affiliate, Altria) and RJ Reynolds ponying up in excess of $50 million. While Prop. 56 had significant support in polls taken in September, proponents worry that support is slipping under the withering barrage of cigarette company ads.

“It’s just unconscionable that Big Tobacco throws so much money at this every time that it comes up for a vote in the state and in Sacramento and everywhere else. They kill the bill. And they’re trying to do it again,” says Imboden.

“We believe that Prop. 56 is a deceptive measure that is actually a tax grab and that the bulk of the money doesn’t go to helping people quit smoking or preventing them from starting, but rather 82 percent or about $1 billion a year goes to wealthy special interests, including insurance companies and hospitals,” says Beth Miller, spokesperson for the No on 56 campaign.

The Yes campaign has raised $30 million in a broad coalition that includes the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and other health-care interests, the Service Employees International Union and other labor unions, many county chambers of commerce and ranks of civic organizations. The two biggest donations have been $10 million from the California Hospitals Committee on Issues, a project of the California Hospitals Association, and $3.5 million from Democrat philanthropist Tom Steyer.

“This is a classic David and Goliath fight, which we’re seeing in California repeatedly,” says Steyer, “where a really well-funded special interest uses its money and its organization and some questionable tactics to get its way at the expense of the California citizenry. We’ve been right for a long time but we haven’t won.” Steyer’s mother, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer.

California currently has one of the lowest tobacco excise taxes in the country, ranked 37th, at $.87 per pack, and it hasn’t been raised in 18 years. Other states have raised their tobacco tax a combined total of 126 times since California has. The tax is now significantly lower than any of the surrounding states, including relatively tax-averse states like Nevada ($1.80) and Arizona ($2). New York City has the highest combined city and state tobacco taxes, at $5.85 per pack. Missouri has the lowest, at $.17. The Los Angeles Times reported recently that the California legislature has proposed raising the tobacco excise tax 35 times in the last 34 years but, with a two-thirds majority needed for tax measures, was defeated every time by tobacco industry lobbying.

Photo by Pandora YoungPhoto by Pandora Young

“The Institute of Medicine [now the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies], the U.S. Surgeon General, and the World Health Organization all agree that increasing the price of tobacco products is the single most effective way to reduce youth smoking,” says Michael Roth, spokesperson for the Yes on 56 campaign. “In every other state that has significantly raised the tax, smoking rates have gone down. Prop. 56 is about protecting kids from tobacco companies claws, helping smokers quit, saving lives and improving accessibility to quality medical care that Californians deserve.”

The limited increases in the tax that have occurred have happened through California’s ballot initiative process. The tax was raised from $.10 to $.35 by Proposition 99 in 1988, and then more than doubled to $.87 in 1998 by Proposition 10. In the last 10 years, two ballot initiatives have sought to raise the tax and failed. Proposition 86 in 2006 would have raised the tax to $3.47 and was defeated, by 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent of the electorate. Proposition 29 in 2012 was a more moderately proposed hike to $1.87 and was a squeaker, losing by less than 25,000 votes against over five million votes cast.

The California Medical Association and other groups have calculated that the tobacco industry has spent well over $200 million in the last decade battling tobacco tax increases in California. The stakes are high: in 2015 alone, Altria and Reynolds American reported a combined $8.5 billion in net U.S. earnings. Since California is responsible for about 6.6 percent of all cigarette and snuff tobacco sales, a rough estimate (not including cigars and other tobacco products) puts their statewide 2015 earnings north of $500 million.

The bulk of that $200 million-plus goes into ads like the current campaign saturating the state, in which the No on 56 campaign seizes on technicalities that tobacco critics point out have little or nothing to do with the thrust of the initiative, and blowing them up in an attempt at misdirection. For instance, the ads now running claim in alarmed voices that Prop. 56 would “cheat California’s schools out of $600 million a year.” Politifact ruled that claim “mostly false,” explaining as follows: It’s true that under Prop. 98, passed in 1988, 43 percent of all California general fund revenues must go to schools, and if this initiative generates an expected $1.4 billion a year in new revenues, that would mean $600 million to the schools.

But this initiative, like the tobacco excise taxes that already exist and a couple other propositions approved by voters, revises the constitution to bypass the general fund. Instead, 82 percent of the new revenue (minus $118 million in set-asides for law enforcement and other agencies) would go to Medi-Cal (and so to doctors and hospitals, the so-called “special interests” called out in the ads) which currently picks up $3.5 billion a year in tobacco-related costs in the state and passes them along to the taxpayer.

“We’re not saying that it robs schools of $600 million; we’re saying it cheats them out of it,” says Miller, defending the ads. “It does circumvent Prop. 98.”

Miller also attacks the amount of money that goes to smoking-cessation programs, pointing out that it’s only 13 percent of the after-set-aside revenues. California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has estimated that Prop. 56 would put $20 million into school-based tobacco prevention and intervention programs, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson circulated a letter saying that the money would be a welcome increase.

In a Yes on 56 ad released October 7, Steyer said bluntly, “Tobacco companies knew that smoking kills and they lied about it for decades. Now they’re lying about Prop. 56.”

San Diego Free Press blogger Doug Porter was way out ahead of the new ads, titling his October 1 piece, “Tobacco Industry Lie Machine Runs at Top Speed.” A former smoker and laryngeal cancer patient, he breathes through a stoma in his neck. In his post, he pointed out what no one else has in this debate: That when misdirection and lies become winning strategy, they spread.

“[Tobacco companies] know arguing in favor of tobacco use won’t work, so they’ve unleashed a blizzard of bullcrap advertising seeking to confuse and obfuscate the matter,” Porters wrote, adding, “Their experience at ‘marketing’ is being used by dirty energy, drug pushers and the poison food industry to encourage a host of bad behaviors. It’s time to fight back.”

In an interview, Porter pointed to one of the kings of misdirection, Richard Berman of the Washington D.C. lobbying firm Berman & Co., infamous for using industry-funded front groups such as the Center for Union Facts or the American Beverage Institute to spread misleading information on behalf of clients in tobacco, chain restaurants, alcohol and hotels. A Harvard Law School paper lays out how food companies are using tobacco industry tactics (largely Berman’s tactics) to deny the existence of an obesity epidemic. A New York Times article talks about how coal companies are now taking a page from the tobacco playbook. Forbes writes that soda companies are doing the same.

Interestingly, more California businesses are supporting Prop. 56 than during similar initiative campaigns in the recent past, including chambers of commerce in the Los Angeles Area, Beverly Hills, North Orange County and across the state. The statewide California Chamber of Commerce, which opposed Prop. 29 in 2012, has taken no position on Prop. 56.

“We’re just seeing the steady yet explosive cost of health care is going up five to 10 percent a year, and that financial burden really is breaking the backs, slowly but surely, of everybody who provides health care for their employees,” says Jay Hansen, Chief Strategy Officer for the California Medical Association and vice president of the Sacramento School Board. “So there’s a huge cost to starting smoking. People have turned back from speaking against all taxes as a blanket position to being more open to what we’re trying to accomplish with this measure.”

Hansen points out that the numbers are really simple: Every year nearly 17,000 California kids start smoking and one-third of them will eventually die from tobacco-related disease. Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in California; it kills over 40,000 Californians every year.

State Senator Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician practicing in Sacramento, authored the most recent Senate bill to increase the tobacco tax, which lost during this current session. Now his hopes are riding on Prop. 56.

“When my bill was up and did have a hearing, someone asked me, ‘What happens if everybody quits smoking? You won’t get any revenue.’ I said, ‘Well, Californians win and the state wins. Because the cost of tobacco is much greater to the state and the taxpayers than any revenue that we could collect from this tax proposal. So if we have a place where everybody quits, I’d be even happier about that.’”

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