SAN FRANCISCO — Fabled as a mecca for the health-conscious and fitness-obsessed, California is also one of only a few states that has not hiked its cigarette taxes in the last decade, meaning it is less expensive to light up in Los Angeles and San Francisco than many other places in the country.
The tobacco industry wants to keep it that way.
It has amassed nearly $50 million to kill an initiative before California voters that has been championed by cycling star Lance Armstrong and supported by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has donated $500,000 to its campaign.
Marlboro-maker Altria Group Inc., RJ Reynolds and other tobacco heavyweights have spent their millions on a media blitz to snuff out Proposition 29, which would slap an additional $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to fund cancer research.
If the tax passes, California would still have only the 16th highest tax rate in the nation, at $1.87 per pack. But tobacco companies and their allies say that voter approval of an extra tax on Tuesday's primary ballot in the nation's largest cigarette market would crush owners of small businesses and spark anti-smoking measures elsewhere.
"We all know that Big Tobacco has poured tens of millions in this campaign saying, 'Don't tax us any more,' " said Armstrong, who beat testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs more than a decade ago. "But the fact of the matter is the product they sell leads to about $9 billion a year in health care costs for California. I think if this passes, other states will follow."
Its passage is uncertain.
The Public Policy Institute of California found that support for the initiative dropped from 67 percent in March to 53 percent by late May, reflecting the blizzard of radio and TV ads from the tobacco industry.
A statewide Field Poll released Thursday found that 50 percent of likely voters said they will vote yes on the measure, with 42 percent voting no and 8 percent undecided.
As the primary approaches, Armstrong and other smoking foes, including Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, are pouring in their own money to counter the industry.
Bloomberg has banned smoking in New York City bars and parks during his decade in office.
"California is a particularly important state, and it's very visible on this issue," he said in a telephone interview. "A lot of people there will die unless we do something to stop Big Tobacco."3 comments on this story
The $12.2 million anti-smoking groups have raised comes to about one-quarter of the $47 million war chest built by the major tobacco companies. The anti-tax contributions exceed those of any other federal independent expenditure committee except the "Restore Our Future" super PAC supporting Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, according to recent campaign finance figures.
Smoking is not as common in California, the nation's most populous state, as it is in other pockets of the country. Smoking rates are among the nation's lowest in California, at 12.1 percent, and highest in Kentucky, at 24.8 percent.
Still, California represents a huge market for the tobacco industry. Smokers spent approximately $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2010.