And while I’m ranting libertarian, if you live in California, vote NO on Prop. 29

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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  • PaulScott

    I feel that cigarette smokers cause more damage to society than the current taxes cover. Second hand smoke is the cause of many cancers, one of which I had to suffer through ten years ago. In addition to the litter, many fires are caused by smokers who feel free to throw their burning butts anywhere they please, and by those who fall asleep while smoking. In addition to the smoker, many innocents die because of this behavior.

    Well over 90% of smokers begin smoking before the legal age. Young people tend to be swayed by price more than adults, so a $1/pack tax will have a pretty good effect on keeping kids from starting smoking which will result in fewer smokers down the road.

  • Bookworm

    PaulScott:  Those are all compelling arguments.  Let’s be honest, though, about taxing the Hell out of cigarettes:  make it a $4 tax and apply it to California’s general fund or something.  This smarmy legislation, though, which does a marginal tax, that pretends it’s not a general tax, and that lets the funds go to pointless bureaucracies is, as the L.A. Times said, the wrong way to achieve any goal other than making California’s government bigger.

  • Libby

    This assumes that people will just pay up if they continue to smoke, when it will probably lead to a rise in black market sales of cigarettes imported from other states. I recall reading a story a few years ago about a ring of Hammas members in the US were making a killing selling cigarettes imported from other states to people in NY after a cigarette tax increase and then using the money to fund terrorism overseas. 
    Found the story:,2933,353017,00.html

  • Danny Lemieux

    “Second hand smoke is the cause of many cancers, one of which I had to suffer through ten years ago.”

    You may want to research the “second-hand smoke’ premise a bit more carefully. The research making those supposed connections between second-hand smoke and cancer was notoriously bad. However, it has become part of the mythology.

    I’m with Book on the libertarian side of this. If people want to smoke, I have no objection as long as I don’t have to be exposed to it. Restaurants are private businesses: if restaurants want to allow or disallow smoking, let them. Other customers can decide whether they do or do not want to eat there. We don’t need a Mayor Bloomberg to tell us how to run our lives according to his druthers.

  • PaulScott

    Danny, my oncologist and surgeon both said that bladder cancer is 80% caused by tobacco smoke, and the other 20% were from certain hair dyes and solvents. I grew up in a house with two heavily smoking parents, and I worked with smokers for a few years after that. I never smoked, nor was I exposed to the hair dyes or the solvents in question. While anecdotal, my case is but one of tens of thousands, so I guess the doctors use this kind of evidence to come to the conclusions they do. If you know how I can research the premise a bit more carefully, I’m open to your suggestion.

    Besides the apparent health issues, the fire danger and littering are serious problems in and of themselves. Taxing the product to help with the health problems will result in fewer smokers and therefore less littering and fewer fires. 

  • jj

    And yet people died of bladder cancer for millennia before anybody invented either hair dye or cigarettes.  80% smoking?  The remaining 20% from hair dye or solvents?  Sounds a little rich to me.  Your doctor has figured out 100% of the causes for bladder cancer?  He should definitely publish that, he’ll be the first to ever have nailed 100% of the causes of any member of the carcinoma family.  Cancer gnawed the bones of the dinosaurs.  Not sure what they were smoking; pretty sure they didn’t dye.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Here, from the Mayo Clinic (which I consider very credible) is a list of potential causes for bladder cancer, prefaced by the statement “we don’t know”.

    Yes, smoking is listed, as is exposure to chemicals, but they aren’t the only potential causes. There is a huge difference between being a smoker and being exposed to 2nd-hand smoke, however.

  • PaulScott

    JJ, I’m not suggesting people didn’t die of cancer before the invention of cigarettes, but do you know how many died of bladder cancer back then? Do you know at what percentage people got cancer then? These are things we cannot know. My doctors didn’t do the studies from which they cited these statistics, but they read those studies and make conclusions based on the best science available. Maybe they are off some, who knows? But to assume cigarettes are not responsible for a large portion of these cancers would be irresponsible. Medical science is pretty good these days, not perfect, but then, nothing is.

    When I was in the hospital and able to move around, I met and talked to the other patients. This floor was all bladder cancer patients since USC Cancer Hospital is well known for their work with this particular disease. Every one of the other patients had been smokers. Small sample, yes, but pretty damning just the same. 


    A State with no shame, no conscience has no business asking for anything but forgiveness.
    California 9/11 License Plate Fund Raided For Deficits, Brown …

  • 11B40


    I’ll be a “No on 29” vote next week. I detected echoes of the (embryonic) stem cell research bond issue of a decade or so ago. I don’t recall any cures having come from that large scale governmental debt acquisition but I’m sure that someday something will be attributed to it.  Meanwhile, the issuing banks and the embryonic stem cell-ers got their sinecures.

    Similarly, previous cigarette taxes were levied to provide fund for anti-smoking commercials, a great number of which were fairly baseless propaganda, especially in the above mentioned “second-hand smoke” category.. Those collected taxes also proved fungible and were easily moved to spending that proved our politicians with more tangible results besides setting up a new bureaucratic venture.

    California is a hair’s breadth from a single-party state. The election flyers that I’ve received this go-round don’t even identify any of the candidates as a “Democrat”.


  • Charles Martel

    Regarding what 11B40 said above, California already is a one-party state, although which party depends on which county you live in.
    Let me illustrate: Today my household received 10 pieces of mail, seven of which were political flyers. The primary election is only a few days away, so we’re getting the usual flurry of dumbed-down four-color broadsides. The only problem is that every one of those pieces was addressed to my Democrat wife. I pointed out to her that there was not a single piece of Republican campaign literature directed to our household.
    Why? Very simple: Under a new statewide law, the top two vote getters in any primary race are the ones who show up on the November general-election ballot. Ostensibly the idea is to make sure that only political moderates are on the November ballot, with the electorate having wisely consigned fringe candidates to oblivion in June.
    The way it really works is that in heavily Democratic counties, voters elect a radical and not-quite-as-radical Democrat, so that the November ballot shows only two Democrats running for that seat. In Republican counties, only Republican candidates show up in November. Ergo, a totally closed “I-can’t-hear-you!” system that guarantees a perpetual 2-to-1 standoff in the state legislature between Dems and the GOP.
    This explains why no GOP candidate in her right mind would waste money sending campaign material to anyone in Marin County. The November election for an assemblyman or state senator hereabouts is a foregone conclusion: A Democrat will win.
    Am I pissed at having my party affiliation effectively strip me of the right to vote between two clearly distinct candidates? You bet. But I also know that California has jumped the shark, and that it will take the inevitable collapse of the state–which is coming soon–for sanity to be restored. Shock therapy will be our only way out. Because even though my wife, a reflexively yellow-dog Democrat, agrees that I have been disenfranchised, she doesn’t really care. Like all good liberals she knows that something–somewhere and somehow–will make things better. After all, tomorrow’s another day!

  • Don Quixote

    What strikes me are the ads for prop 29.  They say in stern tones that we shouldn’t believe the lies of the tobacco industry.  Yet they can’t point to a single specific lie.  Apparently, they can’t because the opponents are telling the truth about the proposition.  It’s the supporters who are lying by falsely accusing their opponents of lying.  Figures. 

  • Bookworm

    What an excellent observation, DQ. (And how typical for you to make an excellent observation.)

  • cerumendoc

    California’s showing it’s talent for killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

    Ultimately you will undercut revenue because of a black-market.  If you look at VAT taxes in Europe, you find that despite the nominal tax rate, these taxes collect about 10 percent of the value of the goods being taxed.  Reason, under 10 percent, most people pony up because it’s the most convenient  thing to do.  Over 10 percent, it becomes worth it to evade the tax in the black market.   Further as black market demand increases, it will, in fact, be just as convenient to shop there too.

    But,  before the black market kicks in, the various Indian tribes are going to see a big increase in business as people seek out their cheaper smokes on the local rez.  That doesn’t count purchase of cigarettes from nearby Mexico and Nevada.  Internet sales; is California going to rip open every mail and UPS parcel?

    Finally, the tax won’t work since state revenue officials across the country have already figured out the optimal tax rates already.  It was never a tax to snuff out smoking; rather taxes were set to maximize revenue.



    Because even though my wife, a reflexively yellow-dog Democrat, agrees that I have been disenfranchised, she doesn’t really care. Like all good liberals she knows that something–somewhere and somehow–will make things better. After all, tomorrow’s another day!  

    I hope her name isn’t Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow ♫