California's Tobacco Initiative

Copyright 1998 New York Times
October 8, 1998

The demise of national tobacco control legislation puts the burden on states to find new strategies to reduce smoking and its harmful consequences. The California Children and Families Initiative, which will be on the November ballot as Proposition 10, provides a model that other states could emulate.

Proposition 10 would raise the state cigarette tax by 50 cents per pack, an increase that should cut smoking rates significantly, particularly among teen-agers who are especially sensitive to price. An added benefit is the estimated $700 million a year the tax would generate to pay for new health, nutrition, education and child care programs for preschoolers. The total pot could reach more than $1 billion if the state uses the new revenue as matching funds to tap into Federal grants.

It makes sense to use a tobacco tax to pay for children's programs because secondhand smoke and smoking during pregnancy have been linked to low-birthweight babies, pre-term births and increased asthma and respiratory infections among infants and children. Simply reducing the number of parents who smoke would improve children's health. The new money would help counties expand children's and family services, as well as pay for more anti-smoking programs.

The initiative, spearheaded by the film director Rob Reiner, grew out of ideas presented at a White House conference on infant development last year that focused on good parenting and health care between birth and age 3, the critical period of brain growth. The measure has drawn broad bipartisan support and is supported by every major health and education association in the state.

The primary opposition comes from the tobacco industry, which is expected to spend more than $15 million trying to defeat the measure. The industry is right to worry. If California voters approve this measure, as recent polls indicate they will, this initiative could well start a national movement.

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