On Feb. 26, Senator Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced Senate Bill 591 in the California State Legislature. The main provision of SB 591, also known as the California Tobacco Tax Act of 2015, is to raise the current tax on tobacco products of 87 cents per pack by $2. The UCLA community should encourage the legislature and Gov. Brown to approve this bill in order to reinforce tobacco control and reduce the burden of tobacco-related disease in California.
Tobacco continues to pose a serious public threat to Californians. About 10.5 percent of high school students are smokers, which is about a 49 percent decrease from 21.6 percent in 2000. However, not only do about 40,000 Californian adults die each year from smoking, but also 441,000 young people alive today will eventually die from tobacco-related illnesses. Furthermore, the state spends $13.3 billion every year on direct health care expenditures and loses another $10.4 billion in productivity from smoking.
According to the World Health Organization, taxation is an evidence-based approach to reduce tobacco consumption of smoke and smokeless products, reduce human and financial costs of tobacco and raise money for treating and studying tobacco-related diseases. Even the tobacco industry recognized 25 years ago that tobacco taxes keep young people away from tobacco products. In spite of this overwhelming evidence, California’s tobacco tax is ranked 33rd in the country and has not changed since 1998. Seven proposals have tried and failed to increase California’s tobacco tax since 2002. The most recent, Proposition 29, lost narrowly in 2012 after the tobacco industry raised $47 million to defeat it.
SB 591 is expected to improve public health and offset the substantial costs from tobacco in California. Funds from this bill will go toward increasing medical coverage for Medi-Cal patients suffering from tobacco-related diseases, reinforcing youth tobacco prevention programs, stopping illegal tobacco sales and researching tobacco-related diseases. Save Lives California, a coalition of nine organizations, including: the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the California Medical Association and the Service Employees International Union, initiated this campaign in November. Analysis from Save Lives California projects that the tax will save more than 100,000 lives per year, prevent more than 150,000 young people a year from starting to smoke and save billions of dollars in healthcare costs and costs from lost productivity.
With respect to tobacco control, California has lost its foothold as a leading progressive state. California pioneered tobacco control in 1988 when the landmark Proposition 99 more than tripled the tobacco tax and created funds for research, treatment and prevention. However, last December, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a coalition member of Save Lives California, issued a report ranking California 26th for tobacco control and prevention. This fiscal year, the state will collect about $1.6 billion from taxes and from the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which fined the tobacco industry $206 billion over 25 years for tobacco-related damages. However, the report found that California only plans to spend $58.9 million – or 16.9 percent of the $347.9 million that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we spend on tobacco control. In contrast, the campaign reports that tobacco companies will spend about $583.4 million marketing in the state this year. Finally, another report from UC San Francisco last October found that between 2007 and 2013 the tobacco industry spent nearly $64.5 million on lobbying in California.
Hopefully, SB 591 will be first of several significant tobacco control bills to pass this year as California reclaims its place at the forefront of tobacco control. Other lawmakers have proposed to raise the minimum tobacco sales age from 18 to 21 (SB 151; Hernandez, D-West Covina) and prohibit tobacco use at all baseball venues (AB 768; Thurmond, D-Richmond). In addition, lawmakers have proposed to regulate e-cigarettes like tobacco products, and SB 140 (Leno, D-San Francisco) would restrict e-cigarettes from many public places.
Implementing evidence-based tobacco control measures is crucial to averting the global forecast of one billion tobacco-related deaths this century. The tobacco-free policy that both UCLA and the other UC campuses have adopted in the past two years represents our commitment to fighting tobacco and promoting health. Now we should pledge our support for a new tobacco tax in California starting this year and tell our state lawmakers to vote in favor of SB 591.
Meyers is a graduate student in the Department of Epidemiology in the Fielding School of Public Health and a volunteer legislative ambassador with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.