Oregon voters resoundingly defeated a proposed new cigarette tax Tuesday. Measure 50 would have raised state tobacco taxes to pay for the Healthy Kids Program.
Cigarettes would have gone up by 85 cents a pack and an estimated 117,000 children would have gotten health coverage. But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, tobacco companies broke campaign spending records to flood the local airwaves with attack ads.
At a plush downtown Portland hotel, backers of Measure 50 gathered to watch the election returns. Representatives from the local chapter of the American Cancer Society were there, along with members of the Oregon Medical Association and the American Heart Association.
In fact, just about any organization that has an interest in Oregon health care, was there to cheer for Measure 50. But after getting up on the platform, governor Ted Kulongoski had to deliver the bad news.
Ted Kulongoski: “You know, sometimes in life, you just have to get into a good fight, because it’s the right one. And I wish I could tell you that every time you engage in the good fight, that you come away the victor.”
But he couldn’t. Measure 50 failed by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
The reason — according to most people here — is that tobacco companies raised $12 million to fight it. The sum dwarfed the previous $7 million record for the state.
Carol Butler directed the ‘Yes on 50’ campaign.
Carol Butlter: “You know, this one was a very personal and emotional one, because we are talking about children’s lives and the quality of their lives and their healthcare. So no, I’m a little teary actually as I’m talking to you and I’m a fairly jaded political hack. But this is a tough one and it’s difficult to see an election won this way – with all the misleading and deceptive adds and all the money poured into the state from two out of state tobacco companies.”
About 50 miles south of downtown Portland, in Salem, the spokesman for the R.J. Reynold, Philip Morris, No on 50 campaign emerged from a private party at another nice hotel.
J.L. Wilson says his side prevailed because people recognized it would be unfair to only tax smokers for a program that should be everyone’s responsibility. He was asked why the campaign is celebrating privately.
J.L.Wilson: “Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything to celebrate. We’re not going to be cracking open champagne and smoking cigars on this thing. We had a job to do, but just because you win, I don’t think it’s something that you want to showboat about. We’ve been through a lot in this campaign. Certain news organizations called us liars. I mean we’ve been called every name in the book and at some point I think the staff just wanted to get together, enjoy each other’s company and experience the night together.”
Congress has been wrestling over a similar proposal, but one that doesn't involve tobacco taxes.
The SCHIP or ‘State Children’s Health Insurance’ program provides health care money for kids and needs to be re-authorized. President Bush has already vetoed one version of the bill and looks ready to do the same to another.
So the question is: Does the defeat of a cigarette tax by a liberal-leaning state like Oregon, send a chilling message to those who want the feds to spend more on health care?
Stanton Glantz: “I don’t think you can over generalize from what happened in Oregon.”
Stanton Glantz, is a professor at UC San Francisco and heads the school's ‘Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.’
Stanton Glantz: “The message for the public health community and public policy makers, is that if you want to increase the tobacco tax, you need to do it in a way where you can say with a straight face, that this is fair to smokers.”
That is, a good percentage of any new cigarette tax needs to go to tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.
Furthermore, Glantz thinks the defeat of Measure 50 had more to do with a dislike of taxes than a repudiation of children’s health care.
Back in Portland, Governor Kulongoski wasted no time calling this: the loss of one battle in a very long war. He says he’s already gathering ideas for the next legislative session.