California takes pride in being regarded as health conscious. But when it comes to smoking-related disease and cigarette taxes, the reputation is undeserved.

California has one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the nation — at 87 cents per pack. Only 17 states have lower assessments, and all but two other states have raised their tobacco taxes since California last boosted its excise tax in 1998.

Roughly $50 million from tobacco taxes collected in California go toward prevention and cessation programs. But in a state this size, with so many suffering from smoking-related diseases, it's not enough. According to recent figures from the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in California — and nearly one-third of those cases are linked to smoking. Moreover, health officials project that this year 34,000 children in the state will take up smoking. It's time for a change.

Proposition 29 on the June 5 ballot calls for increasing the cigarette tax by $1 to a total of $1.87 per pack. The estimated $735 million raised from the tax increase would go toward research on cancer and tobacco-related diseases. <NO1>These would provide valuable funds for advancements in research and go a long way toward preventing children from starting smoking.

<NO>Frankly, we would have preferred to see a bigger tax increase with the money going toward more pressing issues, such as education, early child development, safety-net services, etc. California has many more urgent financial holes that need filling.

Nevertheless, we recognize the political realities facing this measure, the importance of keeping the tax increase to no more than $1 and drawing a clear nexus between the tax and the damage caused by smoking.

Which brings us to the primary reason we support Proposition 29 — it will save lives.

Studies have shown that simply raising the cigarette tax by $1 will prevent 228,000 children from starting smoking while motivating more than 100,000 current smokers to quit. That alone is worth supporting Proposition 29.

<CS8.6>This is why so many health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the American Hearth Association and the California Medical Association, are supporting the measure.

</CS>But it faces an uphill fight. Why? Because Big Tobacco, which pours millions into marketing campaigns to hook children on smoking, is dumping millions into a campaign to ensure this proposition fails.

The arguments center around one primary point — that Proposition 29 creates a new level of bureaucracy. Of course, if it didn't specify who would have oversight of how the funds are distributed, the naysayers would be complaining that there is no accountability.

Don't believe the rhetoric. The tobacco companies opposing Proposition 29 are not interested in greater government efficiency or accountability. They just want to continue selling cigarettes at one of the most affordable rates in the nation.

The fact is nine out of every 10 habitual smokers in California started the habit before they were 18 years old. The time to prevent the habit is before it begins. This will help. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 29.