One of the hardest fought propositions on the California ballot this June is Proposition 29 which is described on the ballot as a new law that “imposes additional tax on cigarettes for cancer research.” Doesn’t that sound nice? Those who smoke have to fund cancer research. It’s an indirect version of “smoker heal thyself.” Even better, because it makes cigarettes more expensive, maybe people will stop smoking.
The only problem is that things aren’t always as they seem. First, the tax is $1 a pack, which is insufficient to deter any but the most poverty-stricken smoker. Most smokers will just suck it up (figuratively and literally, I guess). What the proposed tax would do is impose more costs on smokers . . . and, get this, it imposes the greatest cost on poor people. In California, as elsewhere, smoking is a class thing. The middle and upper classes don’t smoke. Working classes and lower classes are being taxed for engaging in a sin that their economic betters frown upon.
One could still argue that, since the poor smoke, and are most affected by smoking’s harm, it’s appropriate that they pay for their sin by funding cancer research. Except you can bet your bottom dollar the money is just going to get sucked into California’s financial black hole. As those who oppose Prop. 29 explain, the loopholes in the initiative (and it’s a really, really long piece of proposed legislation, which nobody but fierce partisans will read) mean that most of the money, assuming it stays in state, goes to more bureaucratic infrastructure.
Here’s what the initiative’s opponent’s point out:
Prop. 29 is a $739 million annual new tax and spending mandate that creates an unaccountable, government bureaucracy filled with political appointees.
Doesn’t require new tax revenue be spent in California to create jobs. Money can be spent out of state or even out of country.
Provides no new funds to treat cancer patients.
Spends $125 million annually on overhead, bureaucracy, buildings and real estate — money that could be used for cancer treatment.
Permits “conflicts of interest” by allowing organizations represented by Commissioners to receive taxpayer funding.
Allows for-profit corporations to receive $500+ million in taxpayer dollars annually.
Duplicates existing programs that already spend $6 billion annually on cancer research.
Establishes another flawed auto-pilot spending mandate like the High Speed Rail Commission — more waste, no taxpayer accountability.
Prohibits the Governor and Legislature from making changes to the initiative for 15 years, even in the case of fraud or waste.
(California Presidential Primary Election, Official Voter Information Guide)
Just how bad is Prop. 29? It’s so bad that even the ultra-liberal Los Angeles Times came out against it. After going on for a while offering general praise to taxes that penalize behavior by making the behavior too costly, and after lauding anything that stops smoking, the Times editors fess up:
Nevertheless, we oppose this ballot measure. The problem with Proposition 29, which would raise $735 million a year at the outset (gradually dropping off as more smokers quit), isn’t the tax but how the money it raises would be spent. Most of it, more than $500 million a year, would be directed to a new, independent quasi-public agency that would award grants for research on cancer and other smoking-related illnesses, such as heart and lung diseases. (The research itself would not need to be tobacco-related; a grantee could study, say, the effects of obesity on heart disease, or malignant melanoma caused by overexposure to the sun.)
Proposition 29 is well intentioned, but it just doesn’t make sense for the state to get into the medical research business to the tune of half a billion dollars a year when it has so many other important unmet needs. California can’t afford to retain its K-12 teachers, keep all its parks open, give public college students the courses they need to earn a degree or provide adequate home health aides for the infirm or medical care for the poor. If the state is going to raise a new $735 million, it should put the money in the general fund rather than dedicating it to an already well-funded research effort. Funding priorities shouldn’t be set at the ballot box.
It’s worth reading the rest of the editorial, because it does a good job spelling out what a foolish, redundant idea Prop. 29 is — and all of it on the back of California’s poorest citizens (and, this being California, non-citizens too).
What’s fascinating, too, is the way in which these liberal columnists freely acknowledge that financial rewards and punishments guide behavior — but they won’t acknowledge that these same rewards and punishments work best in the private sector. To them, the only hand that should be doling out or withholding money is Uncle Sam’s (followed closely by Aunt California’s).
I hate smoking. I think it stinks. I know it’s unhealthy. It accounts for a lot of litter. If I had a magic wand, I’d make tobacco and the desire for tobacco vanish from this earth. But I don’t have a magic wand. If people want to be stupid, let them. I do support laws that require smokers to stay away from me. To the extent that smoke causes a positive harm — sending stinky, unhealthy particles my way — it seems to me I have more right to say to them “Don’t smoke around me,” than they have to say to me “I want to smoke and you have to put up with it.” But as long as I’m protected in my right not to suffer from vicarious smoke, let ‘em smoke.
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