The debate seems pretty straightforward. On the one hand, add a buck a pack and you reduce the number of smokers and improve overall public health -- both good.
On the other hand, you may be trampling the rights of smokers, and by creating a new quasi-government agency, California's already bloated bureaucracy swells even more -- both bad. Some observers also complain that in a severe budget crisis like the one we currently (and perennially) face, forcing much-needed funds to be spent in such a narrowly focused way is maybe a bit like a man lost in the desert coming across a canteen full of water and using it to bathe.
Here to make you scratch your head even more are some other less obvious facts to consider.
Here's one: it turns out that most states are scrimping with the tobacco revenues they already generate. Despite having huge coffers filled from excise taxes on cigarettes and from settlement payments from the big tobacco companies, states and the federal government spend in total barely 17 percent of the amount the Centers for Disease Control recommends for tobacco control programs, according to the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, released late last week.
California was in the middle of the pack for 2010 spending, making 25th on the list. The state raked in nearly $22 billion between 1998 and 2010 but has used only about $1 billion in that time. It might be enough to make some voters pause before giving the government even more money (not) to spend. Others argue the new commission and funds set up by Prop 29 will actually push California closer to the CDC's recommended appropriations levels. You decide.
Here's another fact: low-income residents will be hit harder than everyone else. One out of every five people whose household income is less than $20,000 is also a smoker, according to the California Budget Project, which studies how fiscal policy can benefit lower income residents (their numbers come from the Department of Public Health).
Meanwhile, those making between $75,000 and $100,000 are about half as likely to be smokers. Fewer than one in 10 making more than $150,000 smoke. The correlation between smoking and income isn't all that revelatory, of course. It's easy to imagine how being poor can increase your stress (maybe money doesn't buy happiness; neither does poverty), and cigarettes can carry you away from your worries on a cloud of euphoria, if only for a moment. Being poor and stressed and hooked on cigarettes, you're not likely to appreciate having to spend another dollar on every pack, even if you plan to quit.
And here's one final tidbit to chew on: California's cigarette tax is currently below the national median of $1.25. Even if Prop 29 passes and catapults the tax here to $1.87, at least 15 other states would still be charging more per pack. New York currently tops the list with a staggering $4.35 per pack, according to the CBP, which pulled the numbers from the Federation of Tax Administrators.
We're not in the business of telling you how to vote, but there's a lot to consider with each new voter initiative. Take a few minutes to read the full CBP analysis. It's loaded with useful information, and it's not that long. You can also take a closer look at who's funding both the support and the opposition.