California Cigarette Tax Proposal Sunk by Big Tobacco

Influx of Big Tobacco money leads to shift in voter attitudes on cigarette tax ballot proposal.

smoking California Prop 29 campaign finance
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California's Proposition 29, a ballot initiative to add a $1 tax to packs of cigarettes, was defeated by a narrow margin in a statewide vote Tuesday. The vote was so close it has taken more than three days to determine the result. That the vote was so close—the two sides were separated by around 53,000 votes out of 3.8 million ballots casted as of Thursday—speaks to the powerful influence of cash in swaying voters.

In March, a statewide poll found 67 percent of Californians supported the tax, which would fund cancer and tobacco-related health research. The proposition had majority support across all age groups and political affiliations.

But as the date of the vote approached, and money from Big Tobacco poured in, voter attitudes began to shift.

On March 1, spending by those opposed to Prop 29 totaled $9 million, according to state election filings. From March 1 to May 18, they spent $40 million.

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That spending coincided with a significant shift in voter attitudes on the measure. A May 23 poll released by the same group, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, found that support for Prop 29 had dropped 14 points since March.

The opposition raised more than $47 million, and 96 percent of that came from large tobacco companies and their subsidiaries, according to campaign finance nonprofit MapLight. While the exact spending numbers won't become available until July, it's safe to assume that No on 29, the main opposition group, continued spending heavily in the last few weeks before the vote.

"The tobacco companies wouldn't spend over $40 million during that period without getting what they wanted, they're seeking return on investment," says Daniel Newman of MapLight. "It's overwhelmingly spent on ads meant to convince Californians, not necessarily educate them on the proposal."

The pro-Prop 29 coalition, led by American Cancer Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, spent $12.3 million total, about a fourth as much as those opposed.

However the rejection of Prop 29 wasn't completely a result of money, says Shaun Bowler, a professor of elections and voter behavior at UC-Riverside.

"The intuition is that the ads were effective," Bowler says. "But there were these other things that favored it, a sort of prevailing wind that went towards Big Tobacco this time."

For one, the turnout was relatively low and relatively conservative, so the voting bloc was predisposed to be against a new tax. For another, the group on the "no" side of any ballot initiative is at an advantage, as they only need to manage to raise doubts in the voters' minds. As a result initiatives fail 60 percent of the time, Bowler says.

Still, the large cash discrepancy, coupled with the simultaneous shift in voter opinion, is hard to ignore.

"Of course it's not a coincidence," says Newman. "The resources on the two sides were hugely imbalanced—voters weren't getting even information."

Seth Cline is a reporter at U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at scline@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.