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Clearing the Smoke on Proposition 86

Audio

Aired 4/19/09

Next month, Californians will decide whether smokers will have to cough up more money for a pack of cigarettes. Prop 86 on the November ballot would raise tobacco taxes by two dollars-sixty cents a pack.  Supporters say the tax revenue would fund a wide range of health programs, like emergency care. But tobacco companies are crying foul. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has more.

It’s midday in the emergency room at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Chula Vista. An elderly patient tells a doctor how he managed to hurt himself.

Doctor and patient: I’ve had arthritis trouble in my knees, and my left one gave way, and I fell sideways and hit my side on the TV console.

If this man has to be admitted to the hospital today, there will be no place to put him. All of the beds are full. And the emergency room is starting to back up. Dr. Mel Ochs is running the ER. He says it’s not unusual for his hospital to tell ambulances to take their patients elsewhere.

Ochs: There is a significant period of time when we are on bypass, just because we’re at capacity. We advise the pre-hospital folks of that status, and say, hey, we’re full here, it’s not safe to bring someone else in, and they will look for other facilities where perhaps they’re not so jammed up.

Prop 86 on the November ballot could come to the rescue. The measure would raise tobacco taxes by $2.60 a pack. It would generate an estimated $2 billion in annual revenue. More than a third of that money would go to hospitals to help expand emergency services. Dr. Ochs says it’s only fair that smokers foot the bill.

Ochs: Smoking is the number one cause of preventable disease. So that translates to increased incidence of heart attack, increased incidence of stroke, increased incidence of respiratory problems. So it really is a key factor in illness and consequently hospital occupancy.”

Prop 86 would also pay for children’s health insurance. The measure would expand coverage to nearly 400,000 California children.

Porter: This is a way to tie together a couple of frayed threads of the safety net.” 

Ross Porter is with the American Lung Association, a group that’s one of the main backers of Prop 86.

Porter: If we can get more kids on a health insurance program, we’re going to be able in this state to offer better preventive care. And that’s not directly related to tobacco, but it certainly is related to minimizing the long-term cost of health care.

Prop 86 would also ask smokers to fund community clinics, prostate cancer research, and nursing education. Tobacco companies see the measure as a major threat. They’re committing tens of millions of dollars to defeat it. And they’re flooding California’s major TV markets with ads.

Ad montage: Why are hospital corporations spending millions to pass Proposition 86, the tobacco tax increase? Hospitals will reap hundreds of millions a year in new tax revenues. Proposition 86 imposes over $2 billion in higher taxes. I thought raising tobacco taxes with Proposition 86 sounded okay until I looked into it. Have you read it?

These ads have aired more than 10,000 times over the last few weeks. And they’re having an effect. The latest Field Poll shows support for Prop 86 has dropped ten points since July. As it stands now, 40 percent of California voters say they’re opposed to the measure. And so are retailers.

At the Keg and Bottle Store near San Diego State, Tony Konja rings up another sale. His family runs eight convenience stores in the area.  Konja says if Prop 86 passes, a carton of cigarettes will sell for around $80. With the price that high, he thinks a black market for tobacco will crop up. Konja is afraid thieves will target his store.

Tony Konja: You know, I’ve got 100 cartons sitting in my stores valued at $8,000. Think of smoke shops, they’ve got hundreds of cartons sitting in their store.

But the American Lung Association’s Ross Porter says critics are overlooking the biggest reason to approve Prop 86. He says a $2.60 a pack hike in cigarette taxes will cut teen smoking. Porter cites an estimate from state tobacco control officials.

Porter: About 700,000 youth will not smoke because of this price increase. And it’s a huge public health benefit. That’s a net cost savings of something in the order of $16 billion to the economy of California.”

 Porter says Prop 86 couldn’t come at a better time. State health officials say California’s teen smoking rate has increased by 16 percent over the last two years.  Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

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