October 1, 2016

Stanton A. Glantz, PhD

Campaign for California Tobacco Tax (Prop 56) hits the right tone in its media campaign

It has been no secret that I have been critical of the campaign to pass Proposition 56, the $2 tobacco tax that would reinvigorate the California Tobacco Control Program and fund expansion of medical care for poor people.  In particular, the campaign didn’t seem to have learned from defeats of past tobacco tax initiatives in California (Propositions 29 and 86 in 2012 and 2006), which also failed to engage the tobacco companies’ misrepresentations of what the tax actually did. 
The Yes on 56 campaign was running a soft feel good ad (“Butterfly”) about smoking and kids that ignored the tobacco industry’s arguments. That strategy may work in elections when you have as more money or at least about as much money as the opposition.  But it never works when fighting Big Tobacco, which will spend whatever it takes to stop public health. 
Things changed yesterday (September 30, 2016), when the Yes side launched a new, well-conceived and well-executed ad (“Trust”)  that exposes and engages the industry while making the affirmative case for raising the tobacco tax.  The yes campaign also reoriented its website to directly confront the industry and its arguments.
Having a strong message in the media campaign will build on the strong editorial support Prop 56 has won (including the LA Times which opposed the last tobacco tax initiative).
My one remaining question is whether the Yes campaign leadership will meaningfully enagage California’s extensive grass roots tobacco control network, which so far has been ignored. 
Meanwhile, No on 56 -- Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds – trotted out a doctor, Arnold M. Zeiderman MD, MPH, as the latest voice to repeat the industry’s argument that “only 13%” of the money goes to the anti-smoking program.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, 13% is what is needed to reinvigorate the California Tobacco Control program.   (I don’t understand how Dr. Zeiderman can say that none of the money will go to patient care, since most of the rest goes to MediCal expansion, which provides care for poor people.)  The tobacco industry is also trotting out longstanding third party allies to try and stay out of the spotlight.
But, that really doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the Yes side is out there with the right message that lets the public know who is behind both sides and why the public can’t trust what the industry is saying.
They are finally doing that.
So, now the question is whether the advocates for the tax can raise the money to get the word out.  They don’t need to match Big Tobacco dollar-for-dollar, but they need “enough.”  How much is enough is hard to say, but about 4 to 1 seems to work.
As of October 1, the Yes side, had collected about $21 million and has $8 million on hand.  (A lot of that spending was to qualify the initiative in the first place.)   Most of this money came from organizations interested in providing health care, which is appropriate.  It is also about time the medical system supported tobacco tax increase campaigns, since historically these organizations have been “free riders,” with the voluntary public health agencies carrying most of the financial load.    
Even with this history, I was surprised to see how little cash the voluntary health agencies have put in, just $100,000 from the American Lung Association, $70,000 from the American Heart Association, and nothing from the American Cancer Society. 
In contrast, as of October 1, Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds had put up over $56 million (plus some token contributions from their friends), with $28 million in the bank even after their heavy ad buys to date.   Given that 56 is still ahead in the polls and the high stakes for Big Tobacco if Prop 56 passes and provides the wherewithal to make California the first place to reach former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s smokefree society, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds spend over $100 million trying to block Prop 56.
With the campaign on the right track now, it will be interesting to see if 56’s supporters in the medical community will continue to provide what it takes to finish the job and win and whether the voluntary health agencies will make a more serious financial commitment (13%?) to the campaign.

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