Calif. voters split on tax targeted by Big Tobacco

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A California initiative to raise the tax on tobacco products was losing early Wednesday but the vote was still too close to call because hundreds of thousands of ballots potentially remained uncounted.

The day after Election Day, Proposition 29 was losing by just over 1 percent, or about 64,000 votes out of more than 3.8 million counted.

However, even with all precincts reporting, there typically are many late-arriving ballots from early and absentee voting not counted until after election day. These ballots typically comprise up to 20 percent of all votes, meaning potentially hundreds of thousands of votes were still to be counted statewide.

It could be days or longer before a winner is declared.

Cycling legend Lance Armstrong backed the measure to impose an additional $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund cancer research. A $50 million opposition ad campaign was led by Big Tobacco.

In March, a statewide poll suggested the Proposition 29 would pass with two-thirds approval.

The situation reminded some of a 2006 California cigarette tax measure that was leading by wide margins until tobacco companies spent $66 million to defeat it.

The attempt to hike taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products grew into a national fight last month with tobacco companies pouring in millions to quash the effort and celebrities including the New York City Mayor urging voters to support it.

As returns came in, both camps said they expected a close race but remained confident they would emerge the winner.

"We expected that as voters took a look at the measure, they would recognize the serious flaws, and as well intentioned as the measure is, they would realize it's not right for California," Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the No on 29 campaign said Wednesday.

Tobacco taxes have been proven to reduce smoking. But opponents said the initiative would create an unaccountable bureaucracy in charge of doling out the tax revenue, which is expected to start at $735 million a year.

An extra tax in the nation's most populous state also could mean major losses for tobacco companies, and Proposition 29 supporters said industry heavyweights were inventing arguments to obscure their true motive — safeguarding profits.

"I think the public health message has gotten through the smoke screen of the tobacco companies' nearly $50 million misinformation campaign," Jim Knox of the American Cancer Society said Tuesday.

Armstrong and a coalition of anti-smoking groups raised about $18 million to bolster the measure. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $500,000 to the campaign to help offset the industry donations.

Majorities in the Democratic-leaning counties along the Northern California coast favored the tax, while majorities in most other regions others opposed it. Voters on both sides expressed strong convictions as they cast their ballots.

"I think that we should aggressively discourage smoking — make it less convenient, make it more expensive," said Susan Hyman of Long Beach.

In nearby Glendale, Craig Jerpseth, a 43 year-old nurse, was equally certain about voting the measure down.

"I hope we don't get any more taxes. That's pretty much it," he said.

A slew of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, opposed the measure while proclaiming their reluctance to side with tobacco companies. They argued that the revenue should go to the state, which Gov. Jerry Brown announced last month now faces a deficit of $16 billion.

With a smoking rate of 12.1 percent, California has not raised these taxes since 2000. If the measure passes, California would still have only the 16th highest tax rate in the nation.


Associated Press writers Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles and Amy Taxin in Long Beach contributed to this report.