Anti-Tobacco Initiative Creates Unlikely Allies
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 1998; Page A16
LOS ANGELESFrustrated with the failure of Congress to confront the deep-pocketed tobacco industry, an odd-bedfellow coalition of Hollywood and health activists is pushing California voters to approve a proposition that would increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents -- and use the billions of dollars generated to pay for early childhood development programs.
The anti-smoking initiative, one of the most ambitious pieces of social legislation in a state known as a tobacco battleground, could be the start of a national movement to more heavily tax cigarettes to bankroll a broad range of programs. It is also a risky move.
If the measure passes here, other states are sure to follow with their own propositions to squeeze the tobacco companies and smokers of cash. Some 30 states have organizations that could push similar propositions either directly to the voters or through their legislatures.
But if California voters reject the measure -- and the tobacco industry is spending an estimated $20 million on television and radio ads to see that they do -- it may derail efforts in Congress and elsewhere to punish the cigarette companies.
"This is a war, and the tobacco industry knows what happens in California will occur in other parts of the country," said Tony Najera, vice president of the American Lung Association. "And so California cannot afford to lose this battle."
The California Children and Families Initiative, better known as Proposition 10, is the brain child of Rob Reiner, the actor and director best remembered for his portrayal of Archie Bunker's son-in-law on the television series "All in the Family." Reiner has contributed about $1 million to the $6.3 million effort.
Joining Reiner, an avowed liberal, on proposition mailers, radio and television spots are some odd bedfellows, including actor and National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston, millionaire former representative Michael Huffington (R), crooner Pat Boone and former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. The measure also has the support of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (D) and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (R), plus every major health and education association in the state, as well as Hollywood's A-list of big political donors.
Reiner says his interest was sparked not only by watching his children grow and his own unhappy memories of his childhood, but by a growing body of scientific evidence on the importance of the first few years of life for a child's brain.
"Politicians are always talking about how children are the future and our most important resources, but when it comes to spending money on them, they don't," Reiner said. Why not? Because, he says, toddlers don't make campaign contributions. But Big Tobacco does.
The proposition is the latest salvo in the continuing war on tobacco waged by the nation's largest state. Californians passed Proposition 99 in 1988, which raised state excise taxes on a pack of cigarettes from 10 cents to 35 cents, making it the highest state tax in the nation at the time.
That tax hike is credited by anti-tobacco advocates with cutting smoking by 12 percent in the state and provides the money for California's eye-catching anti-smoking advertisements, including billboards that show two Marlboro men riding the open range and one cowpoke telling the other, "I miss my lung, Bob."
Last year, California again stoked the campaign against tobacco when it banned all indoor smoking, including in bars and lounges.
If Proposition 10 passes, California will jump to third place for the highest cigarette taxes, behind Alaska and Hawaii, which tax a pack at a dollar (the federal excise tax is 24 cents a pack). A pack of cigarettes in California will increase from $2.55 to $3.05 a pack.
According to its proponents, the initiative provides something of a double whammy. It increases taxes on cigarettes, which studies show should reduce smoking, particularly among teens, who are more price-sensitive. But as important to Reiner, the measure would generate about $700 million a year to be spent not just on smoking cessation programs, but on immunization, nutrition, education, health and day care programs from prenatal stages through the age of 5.
The money would be dispersed by 58 county commissions appointed by local boards of supervisors -- and the amount each county gets would be based on its birth rate. Los Angeles, for example, would get the lion's share: $177 million.
The tobacco industry, which is the only truly organized opposition to the measure, argues in its television commercials that the proposition will create a huge bureaucracy with no accountability. Furthermore, the ads state that the funds will not go to California's beleaguered schools. The state's chamber of commerce and manufacturing association also oppose the measure.
"This is a $700 million regressive tax on working Californians to pay for a new bureaucracy governed by political patronage with no accountability whatsoever," said Matt Taggart, a Sacramento public relations executive working for the tobacco industry. Former state senator Bill Campbell (R), also serving as a spokesman against the measure, said that while such propositions are well-intended, half the smokers in the state earn less than $30,000, making the tax a true burden.
The conservative Heston, however, says what he likes about the measure is that it is "anti-bureaucratic," that it gives the power of the purse to local commissions to spend as they see fit. Reiner also counters that there are audits and oversight, and as for the $700 million not going to schools, "that's the whole point. It's going to children up until 5 years old."
Passage of the measure, however, is certainly not guaranteed. "The polls seem mixed and that's not good," said Stanton Glantz, an anti-tobacco activist and professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco.
The initiative is one of five heavily advertised propositions before voters next month, and according to recent Field Polls, many likely voters were not aware of it. Of those who were read a summary of the proposition, 48 percent said they supported it and 33 percent said they were opposed. The rest were undecided.
Glantz supports the proposition but complains that the campaign is not being run as well as it could. "The recipe for winning is very simple," he said. "They should say if you hate the tobacco companies, vote yes. But to go out there and argue for little kids is not a winning message."
Reiner obviously disagrees. All the pro-proposition ads feature a big, moon-faced baby with a drooling smile.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company