Health advocates stopped in the Northern San Joaquin Valley this week to respond to campaign ads claiming the Proposition 56 tobacco tax is a gift for special interests.
The $2-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes on the Nov. 8 ballot would raise more than $1 billion for reinvestment in the Medi-Cal system. In places such as Merced County, where more than half of residents rely on Medi-Cal benefits, the state and federal health program is very much a public interest, Prop. 56 supporters said.
The initiative would increase the tax on cigarettes from 87 cents to $2.87, and apply the state excise tax to electronic cigarettes and other tobacco products. Funded by the tobacco industry, the “No on 56” campaign says Prop. 56 is somehow a tax grab by special interests and will fatten insurance company profits.
Supporters of Prop. 56 counter that Big Tobacco and its products are responsible for $3.5 billion in costs for the taxpayer-funded Medi-Cal program every year. That estimate comes from a 2006 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, which put the total medical costs attributed to smoking at $9.1 billion in California. The figure has been updated since then and applied to Medi-Cal enrollment.
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Health conditions related to tobacco use include cancer, heart disease, stroke, asthma, reproductive problems, rheumatoid arthritis and vision problems.
“Prop. 56 is our best chance not just to save lives, but to reduce and recoup the costs of tobacco-related diseases to Medi-Cal, and invest in that critical lifeline for nearly 14 million Californians,” said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access California. Representatives from Health Access and Golden Valley Health Centers held an event Tuesday in Merced to support the tobacco tax increase.
Beth Miller, spokeswoman for the “No on 56” campaign, said it’s no secret tobacco companies are funding efforts to defeat the cigarette tax proposal. She said the additional tax revenue would be used to pay clinics and hospitals that care for Medi-Cal patients.
Insurance companies would benefit because of their involvement in the Medi-Cal managed-care delivery system, Miller explained. “All that money would go to health insurance plans or hospitals,” Miller said. “There is no provision in Prop. 56 to increase the number of patients” who receive services.
Supporters of Prop. 56 say the Medi-Cal system needs the boost. The program is underfunded and some of the state cuts made to benefits during the recession were never restored.
Along with restoring benefits, funding from Prop. 56 would help safety-net clinics hire more doctors and mid-level providers to see patients. Raising the tax on cigarettes – for the first time since 1998 – also would triple support for smoking cessation programs and discourage teenagers from starting to smoke, proponents said.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321