Walters: Putting tobacco in a pinch

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California’s legislative leaders last week sent a message to the tobacco industry that was about as subtle as an exploding cigar:

Lend your support to an increase in California’s tobacco tax, or be prepared to deal with additional tobacco regulations that would be good for public health but bad for your business.

And by the way: If you block a tax increase in the Legislature this year, there’s a very good chance voters will enact a potentially bigger one next year.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León weren’t that blunt, of course.

Still, there is no other way tobacco lobbyists could have read their announcement that tobacco-control legislation which had been stymied during the regular legislative session was being reintroduced in a special session devoted to shoring up Medi-Cal financing.

One of the principal options being considered to finance a much-needed increase in rates paid to Medi-Cal providers is an increase in the state tobacco tax. It now stands at 87 cents on a pack of cigarettes, or a little more than half the national average of $1.60.

On a stand-alone basis, winning approval for such a tax increase would be nearly impossible. It would require a two-thirds majority vote, which means it would need a handful of Republican votes, and GOP lawmakers are unified against tax increases of any kind.

In addition, getting a two-thirds majority would be complicated by the fact that a substantial number of Democrats as well as nearly all Republicans were beneficiaries of tobacco industry campaign contributions in the last election cycle.

But when a proposed tax is paired with proposed regulations, that could be a different story. Approving the regulations requires only a simple majority.

Regular-session bills to raise the legal age to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21 and to regulate e-cigarettes in the same manner as traditional tobacco products were blocked this month in the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee. It is chaired by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, who received more than $20,000 in tobacco industry contributions in the 2014 election cycle.

All bills introduced in the special session will go through a single committee formed just for that purpose.

They will bypass the Governmental Organization Committee, so tobacco lobbyists will not be able to rely on that backstop.

Atkins, D-San Diego, and de León, D-Los Angeles, did not mention the tax when they announced the six-bill, special-session package of proposed tobacco regulations. In a joint statement, they said only they applauded the proposals because “treating tobacco-related illnesses costs California taxpayers billions of dollars.”

It doesn’t take a seasoned diplomat to see the makings of a deal for the tobacco industry. Maybe if they supported a tobacco tax increase and persuaded some allies in the state Legislature to go along, the proposed regulations would go away.

All this is going on as a powerful coalition of supporters has submitted an initiative for the 2016 ballot that would raise cigarette taxes by $2 per pack and dedicate most of the revenue to increasing Medi-Cal provider rates.

The effort is backed by the Medical Association, the Dental Association, Blue Shield of California, the Heart Association, the Lung Association, the Cancer Society, the SEIU and others.

Last week, the SEIU put down $2 million to begin paying for signature-gathering to qualify the measure for the ballot.

In addition, a poll conducted in May by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 67 percent support among likely voters for a tobacco tax increase, with majority support crossing party lines.

“This is a very winnable campaign, and the tobacco companies know that,” said Tim Gibbs, spokesman for the advocacy arm of the American Cancer Society.

Gibbs, understandably, doesn’t see the package of proposed regulations submitted in the special session as a stalking horse for a tax increase.

“We don’t look at it that way,” he told me. “It’s all part of a bigger package. These six bills are not unimportant.”

In other words, health advocates who would like to see tobacco addiction reduced want all of the above. They want e-cigarettes regulated in the same manner as the real thing. They want the legal age to buy cigarettes increased to 21. They want to give local governments authority to enact local tobacco taxes.

They want it all — more regulation and a tobacco tax increase.

And if the tobacco industry doesn’t engage with lawmakers on a tax increase now, there’s a good chance that’s exactly what health advocates will get.

Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.

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