A year and a half ago, Rob Reiner led the charge on California’s Proposition 10, hiking the price of cigarettes in order to discourage pre-teens and teens from becoming smokers. Most of the revenue from the tax was funneled into programs for early childhood development.

Prop 10 squeaked through, despite $30 million spent by the tobacco industry to fight it.

Since then, tobacco sales in California have dropped 30% and $400 million has gone into programs for children’s health and development.

Needless to say, the tobacco industry views this as a very bad thing. It has put Prop 28 on the ballot to overturn Prop 10.

I have not been in California to see what the tobacco industry is doing, but if experience is a guide, it is not a forthright, straightforward pitch.

That pitch would be: “Repeal the tax hike on cigarettes, because it’s creaming our sales.” Or . . . “Repeal the tax hike on cigarettes because it’s causing people — especially low income people who can least afford a tax hike — to smoke less or quit altogether.”

(That’s the paradox of the tax. It falls most heavily on the poor, and thus benefits them the most. More poor people will smoke less or quit than rich people; so more poor people will be moved by the tax to live longer, healthier lives. What’s more, to avoid the tax, a person need “only” — not to suggest this is anything but very hard — quit smoking, in which case he or she not only avoids the tax altogether, but saves an additional $500 – $1500 a year on cigarettes. So at least it’s a somewhat voluntary tax, with big rewards for not paying it.)

But I doubt they are using pitches like those. Straightforward and forthright are not adjectives you would put highest on your list when free-associating about Big Tobacco.

“About 10 years ago,” writes my friend Joe Cherner, who founded and runs Smokefree Educational Services, “Philip Morris and its public relations firm Burson-Marsteller realized they had a problem. Philip Morris no longer had credibility with the public.

“The tobacco industry needed a front group that appeared to be independent that could speak on behalf of smokers. So in 1993, Philip Morris and Burson-Marsteller formed the National Smokers Alliance. The Board of Directors was comprised of high-level Burson-Marsteller employees, notably Thomas Humber who had been handling the Philip Morris account, along with two lawyers from Hunton & Williams, Philip Morris’ Virginia law firm.”

Ah, the National Smokers Alliance — like the giant dues-paying membership of the National Rifle Association or the even vastly more giant dues-paying membership of the American Association of Retired Persons. Right?

“According to secret Philip Morris documents recently uncovered,” Joe continues, “Philip Morris contributed $42 million to the National Smokers Alliance between 1993 and 1996. By comparison, the National Smokers Alliance, according to its tax returns, received only $74,000 from dues. In other words, the group collected enough dues for at most 7,400 members (dues are $10 per year), a far cry from the 3 million members the Alliance claims to represent. In 1996 alone, Humber’s $450,000 salary was six times the amount of money collected from dues. Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, for whom Humber previously worked for almost a decade, and Lorillard Tobacco Company are also significant contributors to the National Smokers Alliance.”

It’s tough to get a lot of folks — even smokers — to stand up for tobacco.

“In 1996, in an effort to recruit more members, the Alliance enlisted the support of talk show host Morton Downey, Jr., a decision which later backfired. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1997, Downey held a press conference and exposed the Alliance as a tobacco industry front group.”

Whatever ads they’re running in California, I would urge that we not let Big Tobacco overturn Prop 10 by passing Prop 28. Vote NO on Prop 28 — and in case you want to learn more, or kick in a few bucks of your own, click here.


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