Kurt Drückler was a heavy smoker. For many years, the German gentleman ran a tobacco shop on the corner of Alexandrinen and Sebastian streets in the heart of Berlin. A few months after I was born, he died from emphysema. This lingering and painful disease, caused by years of inhaling tobacco smoke, prevented him from traveling to the United States in 1966 to see me, his newborn grandson.
The reason why I’m bringing up my grandfather’s history is because on Tuesday, California voters will decide whether or not to raise the price of a package of cigarettes by $1. This tobacco tax will go to pay for cancer research and tobacco prevention and cessation programs. I happen to think Proposition 29 is a damn good idea. And I have a hunch my grandfather, if he were alive today, would agree with me.
For too many years, Americans have been subsidizing Big Tobacco, paying for much of the medical costs resulting from cancer and other diseases caused by using its toxic products. Proposition 29 is a way for Californians to take control of a public health hazard and save both lives and millions of dollars in yearly medical care costs.
Big Tobacco is fighting back. The nicotine industry will spend more than $40 million in an anti-Proposition 29 advertising campaign. TV and radio commercials now airing say money brought in from the tobacco tax will be spent outside of California. That’s highly unlikely. California cancer research centers, like the ones at Stanford and UCLA, are highly qualified in the competition for those dollars. Besides, every year millions of dollars from California’s smokers leave our state to profit R.J. Reynolds in North Carolina and Philip Morris in Virginia.
Even if Big Tobacco is right, even if every cent from the proposed tobacco tax leaves California, the people of our state still win. Proposition 29 will cause 118,000 adults to give up cigarettes. The higher price for a pack of smokes will prevent 228,000 teenagers and young people from becoming nicotine junkies.
California’s tobacco tax now stands at 87 cents a pack. Raising that to $1.87 a pack means that California will be more in line with the national average tobacco tax of $1.46. If Proposition 29 passes, there will still be 22 American states with cigarette pack prices higher than ours. California’s average price for a pack of cigarettes will rise to $6.19. Compare that to New York, ranking highest in the nation for cigarettes, where smokers pay an average of $11.90 a pack.
Big Tobacco knows that the market demographic they need to target if they want to continue operating their lucrative business is teenagers and young people. Tobacco executives are aware that young smokers are more likely to become addicted than individuals who try smoking later in life. Most people who are nicotine users tried their first puff from a cigarette before they turn 18. Most people become addicted to cigarettes when they are adolescents. And the younger they are when they are initiated to the habit of smoking, the higher the chance they have of becoming dependent on nicotine products.
Big Tobacco knows that raising the cost of cigarettes through tobacco taxes hurts their bottom line. Tobacco executives are aware that fewer young people will become regular customers if teenagers and young adults can’t afford higher priced packs of cigarettes.
Big Tobacco knows that society is changing in its views about tobacco products. Recently, the Morgan Hill City Council passed an ordinance limiting where smoking can be done in public places. As a member of the Morgan Hill Parks and Recreation Commission, I was part of a sub-committee that held public workshops and an online public survey to learn what people thought of banning smoking in public areas. Our outreach received comments from many smokers and non-smokers who argued that smoking is “a right” and government should not prevent people from lighting up to enjoy a drag of nicotine whenever and wherever they wanted. But the vast number of responders in our outreach said they would like to see the use of smoke products banned in certain specific public areas.
Kurt Drückler would tell you nicotine is a powerfully addictive drug. He would also tell you cigarettes cause harmful effects to the human body – including death. I never got a chance to meet my grandfather. Tobacco killed him. That’s why I hope Californians vote Tuesday to approve Proposition 29.