Dear Big Tobacco,
Congratulations. You beat back Prop 29 narrowly, a $1-a-pack cigarette increase!
But you had to spend north of $45 million to do it, and the vote was extremely close.
Which raises a question: do you really want to do this again?
Because if you don’t make a bold move, you’ll have to.
The backers of Prop 29 made clear in their concession that they’ll be back. And even if they don’t take a swing at another initiative, you can bet that someone else will. All your ads couldn’t dent the broad public support in California – north of 60 percent — for higher cigarette taxes.
It’s a good bet that before long, California will find a way to hike cigarette taxes. It’s simply an unstable situation to have a health-conscious, cash-starved state with cigarette taxes lower than the national average. And California’s big, nasty, inflexible initiative process makes it easy for any health-conscious rich person or interest to come after you with an initiative. Which means you’ll have to spend millions to beat back cigarette-tax initiative after cigarette-tax initiative until you lose. There is no end in sight for you.
You also should remember that many of the people who criticized Prop 29 – including many of the newspapers and yours truly – were against the initiative not because of your campaign – but in spite of you and your campaign. We liked cigarette taxes. We don’t trust you. But we also didn’t like the bad budget policy of Prop 29, which took this money off the table and divided it up among various cancer research priorities determined by the disease groups that funded it.
If the next cigarette tax initiative isn’t linked to bad budget policy, you’ll lose.
This is the bleak reality. But don’t worry – turn that frown upside down!
This reality is an opportunity for you – to be the good guys! Really. For once. I know that something that new sounds scary, and that all the hats in your closets are black. But you might just try the good guy thing this time – because it’s in your interest.
Here’s what you do. You come out publicly and say you’ll support a hike in California’s cigarette tax. Don’t be cheap about it. It’s gotta be something that puts the state above the national average for such taxes.
But you should be very clear about where you want the money to go. To the broad needs of the people of California. You can say – as you did in what was about the only true thing in your ads – that California’s initiative process makes it too easy to lock budget policies in. And that’s bad for the state. California, you could point out, has broad needs in health and human services, and in higher education, that are being hurt because they rely on general fund money. You want your money going to the general fund to help California. (I know the consultants will tell you to do something targeted. If you must, send the Cal State and UC systems a big donation — $100 million, which may sound like a lot but is merely the cost of two initiative campaigns against the Sons of Prop 29).
Who knows? Being public spirited might grow on you. You’re well aware of the problems of California’s budget process and its inflexible initiative system. So you might even fund an effort to fix California governance and its broken constitution. Maybe you could advise reformers on ads; they sure could use the help in crafting messages.
That may sound like a lot of work. But so is fighting off ballot initiatives. So please, after you’ve toasted the defeat of the American Cancer Society, you should sit down and consider your options.
And those options are these. Lose the war against higher cigarette taxes while spending millions more against future initiatives – and look terrible in the process. Or accept the fact that you’re going to lose and score some public relations points.
It really isn’t much of a choice at all, is it?