Big Tobacco and the Lessons of California’s No on Prop 29

yes on prop 29If you live in California and spend any time listening to commercial radio or television, you have heard a lot about Prop 29 on the June ballot. Or, to be more accurate, you have been inundated with commercials primarily funded by Big Tobacco giant Phillip Morris Tobacco Co. against Prop 29, the California Cancer Research Act.

Backed by the American Cancer Society, Prop 29 imposes a $1 excise on tobacco products that would generate $855 million for medical research on smoking-related illnesses in its first year. It also strengthens California’s smoking prevention programs.

But for the massively funded No on 29 campaign, Prop 29 is not about making Californians healthier. Instead, No on 29 is a case study for how corporations battle initiatives by associating them with generic ideas many voters hate – unfair taxes, bureaucratic decision-making, initiatives that claim to be about one thing but really do something else – so that voters will reject Prop 29 without even knowing what it is about.

I listen to a lot of San Francisco Giants games on the radio, which means I have been deluged with ads for No on 29. And because there are few hotly contested or heavily funded issues on the state ballot, the Phillip Morris-funded No on 29 campaign seems to have the airwaves all to itself.

I always support increased taxes on cigarettes because they are addictive devices that kill people. But I recognize the argument that these are regressive measures that disproportionately fall on the poor (who smoke in far greater numbers).

Phillip Morris, however, does not trust voters to reject Prop 29 on the merits. Its campaign avoids any of the valid claims that could be made against Prop 29 in favor of generic arguments that could be made about initiatives that have nothing to do with health or smoking.

“It’s Not What You Think”

Among these arguments is that Prop 29 seems like a good thing, but it’s not what you think. This testimony is given by a physician/actor who would presumably care most about people’s health.

Few ballot initiatives can escape this line of attack.

I argue in The Activist’s Handbook that the most critical of the five rules for successful ballot initiatives is “Keep it Simple.” The idea is to insulate measures from charges that they “are not what they appear to be.”

no on prop 29Prop 29 appears to be a straightforward tax on cigarettes, so opponents are emphasizing portions of the measure that direct how the money is spent. They are claiming that it “does not require any of the new tax revenue to be spent on research in California, or even the United States. Tax money raised from Californians should be spent in California to create jobs.”

Of course, had the measure required all money to be spent in California, opponents would have attacked it as funding “special interests” in the state while depriving the world’s best and brightest researchers from helping California. That’s the genius of No on 29-style generic campaigns: you have arguments that can be used regardless of what the measure says.

Opponents also claim Prop 29 creates “a new unaccountable state bureaucracy filled with political appointees.” Voters hate “bureaucrats,” and also dislike the idea that California money is being spent out of state. Prop 29 had to include a mechanism for spending money – it creates a nine-member body including “representatives of national disease advocacy groups,” which presumably could mean people not from California – and if no such body had been created, the measure would be attacked for lacking a body to distribute the new funds.

Again, No on 29 offers generic attacks that could have been used regardless of the measure’s text. And while the spector of “political appointees” allocating money scares Phillip Morris, you never hear the giant corporation attack the Supreme Court or virtually other institutions from being staffed by “political appointees.”

“Billions in New Taxes”

What’s notable with this line of generic attack is the argument that Prop 29 generates “billions in new taxes” but does not “fix the state budget.” Even worse, it “can’t pay for critically-needed existing programs like education and health care.”

That’s absolutely correct. Prop 29 also fails to provide money for AIDS research, public transit, affordable housing and other pressing needs.

This is the classic strategy of focusing not on the problems an initiative intends to solve, but rather on what it does not do. And had Prop 29 allocated money to anything outside tobacco-related health, the No campaign would have argued that the measure claims to focus on health but instead spends money elsewhere.

Opposition Campaign Is Succeeding

In a tribute to the success of the generic No campaign, a Public Policy Institute poll released May 23 found support for Proposition 29 dropping 14 points among likely voters since March. Today, the yes side leads 53-42 percent, when in March it was 67-30 percent.

randy shaw

Voters by a 63-34% percent margin say they support tax increases on cigarettes, confirming that Phillip Morris made the right move in using generic anti-initiative arguments rather than challenging Prop 29’s goals.

If this trend continues, expect Prop 29 to lose.

To learn the truth behind Big Tobacco’s lies, go to

Randy Shaw
Beyond Chron

Posted: Thursday, 24 May 2012


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    For some voters like me, the problem with 29 is precisely that its extra revenues will NOT be available to the state’s General Fund – where its expenditure could each year reflect overall broad societal priorities for state expenditures.  Rather, the revenues will be dedicated for a long time to a fixed purpose – ‘cancer research’  – and more particularly to enhancement of the budgets of a handful of existing institutions known for ‘cancer research’.  

    Hence, the issue is not merely that the public would like to see cigarettes taxed more.  The public instead is forced to ask itself whether this extra revenue stream – or indeed any extra revenue that should happen to come available now – should be dedicated and locked in to ‘cancer research’ and indeed for or under direction of these specific institutions. 

    I don’t share the opponents’ complaints that ‘cancer research’ doesn’t imply ‘treatment’.  If anything, the purpose and merit of ‘research’ is that it will enable more effective and economical future prevention and treatment, not more of suboptimal current treatment.  But even so, we’ve had decades of ‘cancer research’ and it seems at most a mixed bag as to whether the real advances to date in timely detection, prevention and treatment owe much to arcane research as versus public education and common sense – including basic anti-pollution regulations – plus overall advancing technology. 

  2. Jay Levenberg, Esq. says

    You have completely missed the real point in all proposition debates-tha tis-whether the public should be involved in these decisions in the first place. The proliferation of propositions in CA is nauseating and most voters find it easier to just vote no than get involved in the specifics of the issues at hand. This is what we have legislators for and if they are doing their job it would not be necessary to ask the voters to opine on every idea (good or bad) some individual or group has for spending state taxes.The state constitution should be changed to limit propositions to constitutional changes and bond proposals and that is it. I really don’t want to get into the minutia of creating a state agency to control health issues that would be better handled at the national level anyway. Our state legislature, dysfuctional as it is must handle these problems.

    • JoeWeinstein says

      An excellent point: the issue is public involvement.  But there is an overlooked aspect of this point:  genuine public involvement – also known as ‘democracy’ – need not and indeed preferably should not take the form of expensive undeliberative mass-voting which actually gives no ordinary folk any power but is just a populist veneer.  Public involvement – on this and many other issues – could instead in each case take the form of small-scale deliberation by ad hoc randomly selected jury. 

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