Lance Armstrong targets California for $20 million cigarette tax campaign

(February 28, 2011)


February 28, 2011

Lance Armstrong, the champion cyclist and cancer survivor, plans to lead a $20 million campaign to persuade voters to finance medical research by doubling California’s cigarette tax.

Armstrong’s goal of adding $1 a pack to the current tax of 87 cents would yield about $850 million a year and raise the average retail cost to $5.40. That would still be well behind New York City, where state and local taxes add $6.46 a pack, according to the city Finance Department website.

Armstrong may be joined on the June ballot by Governor Jerry Brown, who’s pressing for a statewide vote to extend $9.3 billion in taxes and fees to help close a budget deficit. In 2006, tobacco companies defeated a proposed $2.60-a-pack additional levy at a cost of $66.6 million. The last tax increase was in 1999.

“Jerry’s not going to have a lot of opposition other than the Tea Party and the tobacco companies," said Don Perata, the former state Senate president co-chairing the campaign with Armstrong. He said advocates plan to spend $20 million to counter the anti-tax messages. ‘‘If they’re using a shotgun, they’re going to hit everybody," Perata said.

Altria Group Inc., the Richmond, Virginia-based parent of Philip Morris USA, has established a political committee to oppose the increase. The largest U.S. tobacco company contributed more than $128,000 to launch Taxpayers Against Out- of-Control Spending in early February, state records show.

Altria’s effort has the support of six anti-tax groups including the California Taxpayers Association, a spokeswoman, Beth Miller, said in a press release yesterday. She declined to estimate how much opponents may spend to try to defeat the measure.

‘Flawed’ Measure

‘‘We all believe cancer research is important, but this measure is flawed and poorly written,” Teresa Casazza, president of the taxpayers association, said in a statement released through Miller. “At a time when California is faced with a crippling budget deficit of more than $25 billion, we can’t afford to start a new program spending nearly $1 billion a year.”

Armstrong’s campaign comes less than two weeks after the 39-year-old, seven-time Tour de France champion said he was quitting professional cycling, ending a two-year comeback.

Armstrong, who recovered from testicular cancer that spread to his brain and lungs, said he wanted to devote more time to his family and his nonprofit foundation, which funds cancer survivor and support programs. Calls and e-mail messages seeking comment weren’t returned yesterday.

“We’re going to be up against the anti-tax sentiment that’s being promoted by the tobacco companies,” said Paul Knepprath, vice president of the American Lung Association of California, which is backing the campaign. “This is a measure to dramatically increase cancer research all over California. On this issue, Lance Armstrong is the right person to be out speaking for us.”

Medical Research

Medical research would get $468 million a year from the increase to study cancer and other tobacco-related diseases, with $156 million for smoking prevention programs and $23 million for law-enforcement initiatives against tobacco smuggling and sales to minors, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office.

Cigarette consumption per person in California plunged to 28.5 packs annually in the year ending in June 2009, from 47.3 packs a decade earlier, according to the state Board of Equalization. In the same period, revenue declined to $913 million from $1.1 billion.

Ten cents of the tax on each pack now goes to the state’s general fund, while most of the rest is earmarked for health and smoking-prevention programs.

The campaign committee backing the tax increase, Hope 2010 Cure Cancer, reported $40,000 in contributions, all from a trio of Bay Area residents who listed their occupations as investors and retired. Knepprath said he expects supporters to raise enough money for TV advertising in major markets.

2012 Ballot

The measure originally was scheduled to be on the February 2012 ballot, which is the next regularly scheduled statewide election in California. It would be moved up to June if two- thirds of lawmakers back Brown’s proposal for a ballot measure on the tax extensions.

Brown, a Democrat, hasn’t announced a position on the tobacco tax.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, joined Armstrong at a press conference yesterday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles to endorse the higher cigarette tax.

“The California Cancer Research Act will spur job creation at the state’s leading cancer research centers and will bring us a step closer to curing a disease that has hit too close to home for each and every one of us,” the mayor said in a statement.