Thoughts on Prop 99’s Silver Anniversary

To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Proposition 99, the California Tobacco Tax, the Center is lucky to have the campaign directer of Prop 99, Jack Nicholl as a guest blogger. To commemorate this day, Mr. Nicholl will be speaking at the Center’s Information and Education Days’ Meet & Greet.

California voters passed Proposition 99 twenty-five years ago.  Last November’s silver anniversary marked a generation of amazing progress in public health. The vote in 1988 was 58% yes, 42% no, a landslide in today’s politics.  It was a crazy election with 29 ballot measures (3 on auto insurance alone) and resulted in big Republican victories: George HW Bush elected as president and Pete Wilson returned to the US Senate.

From early in 1988 when we began polling, it looked like we could win; but the public health world was skeptical.  California Medical Association undercut the campaign while sitting on the Executive Committee because they feared the tobacco companies would attack doctors and those who worked on the unsuccessful ballot measures restricting indoor smoking in 1978 and 1980 said the industry would beat us.  The political establishment knew the power of Big Tobacco and they were certain we would lose.

But those of us sticking our necks out saw things differently. We looked to the amazing public policy victories achieved through ballot measures by activists with little money — like the 1972 measure establishing the California Coastal Commission and the 1986 Toxics Initiative.  I cut my teeth on the Toxics Initiative, organizing a coalition of environmental organizations which defeated Big Oil.  After that experience, we just assumed we could beat Big Tobacco.

We were right in 1988 but things have changed.  Our attempts to increase the tobacco tax in 2006 and 2012 suffered heartbreaking defeats.  A small majority of California voters on two different occasions has been unwilling to tax cigarettes more.

Is this erosion of support due to the controversy that has surrounded the program since its inception?  There has been a lot of it.

Has the tobacco industry’s ongoing effort to remake its image succeeded in blunting public disapproval?  We all would probably agree that Big Tobacco is less hated now than it was in 1994 when the CEOs testified at Congressman Waxman’s hearings that “nicotine is not addictive.”

Is there greater sympathy now for the beleaguered smoker? Unquestionably.

Has the increasing reach of smoking restrictions raised doubts even among some of our supporters?  Yep.

Have the tobacco industry’s campaigns become more effective?  Unquestionably.

These changes are incremental; some are simply unavoidable costs of running an effective program.  But they are big enough to explain why we are losing close elections. When you add in tobacco industry spending against us, it’s worse.

I’m not one who says we had our one chance and it isn’t coming again. But we took advantage of a unique situation in 1988 which favored our effort.  It’s a lot more difficult now; and to succeed in our next campaign, we need to start over with a fresh look at public opinion, the electorate and the basic political situation we face and not adopt the same approaches we have used before.

-Jack Nicholl

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