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California's tobacco tax not dead yet: A Citizens United preview

Yes on Prop 29 campaign photo
Yes on Prop 29 campaign photo
Urban Times

Not long after the polls closed on Tuesday, it was clear that Proposition 29 had gone down to squeaky defeat. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, the proposed, new buck-a-pack sin tax on tobacco products had lost by a miniscule 63,000 votes.

Or so it seemed.

As officials continue to count the over 1 million mail-in and provisional ballots, and Prop 29's margin of defeat narrows, resuscitation of the measure has become a distinct possibility. According to Capital Television News Service, as of Friday afternoon that margin had dropped to 46,000 votes, giving pro-Prop 29 folks, such as the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and self-loathing smokers like me, reason to hope that Prop 29 will prevail by the time all the votes are counted by the end of the month.

Prop 29’s Weird Ride

Prop 29’s journey has been full of ups and downs. And although the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision had no direct bearing on this particular election, Prop 29’s sad trek may offer the best glimpse yet into how America's democracy will fare now that the court has decided that corporations should be free to give unlimited amounts to “electioneering communications” (read: PACs and political commercials).

Just a few months ago, polls showed that two-thirds of Californians supported Prop 29. This wasn’t too surprising, considering that Californians have long recognized smoking to be hazardous to everybody and regard we few remaining smokers with a disdainful pity usually reserved for three-legged dogs and lepers. If they could get a few more of us to stop lighting up by increasing the cost of our habit -- while funding research and smoking prevention programs for kids -- great. So what happened?

Forty-seven million Big Tobacco dollars, that’s what happened.

A three-month advertising blitz launched by tobacco giants Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, the Republican Party and a group calling itself "Californians Against Out-of-Control Taxes & Spending” managed to whittle the proposition's 37 percent lead in March (Public Policy Institute of California), down to 11 percent in May, down to its current razor thin margin. It’s a good thing the election was held when it was; if we had been subjected to any more of those spots we would have adopted tobacco as California’s state plant.

Come November

Although Big Tobacco could have spent its millions to defeat Prop 29 with or without Citizens United, the example of Prop 29 and its implications for the presidential election in November are frightening. Through PACs headed by the likes of Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and the United States Chamber of Commerce, corporations have already lined up to fund pro-Romney/anti-Obama “electioneering communications” to the tune of $1 billion. By comparison, Obama’s projected $100 million is roughly the equivalent of a hurdy-gurdy and a megaphone.

Even before Citizens United, the influence of money on politics and politicians had thrown America's democracy dangerously out of whack, with far too much power going to big business and the wealthy. One particularly dire result of this imbalance is the growing and unprecedented economic inequality in America today. With Citizens United, however, our politics have truly gone from "one person, one vote" to "one dollar, one vote" and no democracy can remain a democracy for very long with that kind of stacked deck.


With America ideologically split in half, the November election is widely expected to be a squeaker. We saw what corporate spending did to Prop 29's sizeable lead. Imagine what really big corporate spending could do to a close race in November.

However, the Supremes now have a chance to atone for their sins.

Thanks to the Montana Supreme Court's defiant upholding of a state law regulating corporate political spending, the U.S. Supreme Court has a chance to revisit Citizens United if it opts to address the Montana court's defiance. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor, along with the attorneys general of 22 states and D.C., are urging the court to do exactly that.

We all should.


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