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Fight over cigarette tax comes to Sonoma County


Facing a statewide advertising barrage aimed at defeating Prop. 29, local supporters of the cigarette tax initiative are waging their own voter information blitz through phone banks aimed at reaching voters directly.

With only three days left before Tuesday's election, the final skirmishes over the initiative are playing out all over the state, including Sonoma County, where the new county health officer made a public appeal to voters.

Lynn Silver Chalfin, a former assistant health commissioner for New York City, said voter approval of Prop. 29 would save lives by reducing the number of people who smoke or become addicted to smoking.

"Smoking is like an earthquake that hits Sonoma County every year<NO1><NO>," she said, adding that smoking is linked to 500 deaths each year in Sonoma County caused by cancer, heart and lung disease.

For their part, opponents say the initiative, while well-meaning, is flawed and creates a huge spending program with no oversight by the governor or Legislature.

"We all support cancer research, but at a time when we have a $16 billion budget deficit and can't even fund schools, the last thing this state needs is another unaccountable spending program," said Joel Fox, president of the Los-Angeles based Small Business Action Committee.

Fox, whose group is part of the statewide coalition opposing Prop. 29, said the measure allows "tax dollars to be spent creating jobs in other states" and creates large, uncontrolled bureaucracy.

Supporters call such claims misleading and political scare tactics.

According to the state voter information guide, Prop. 29 would increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1, raising the total cigarette tax in California to $1.87.

It would bring in $735 million next year, which would be directed to tobacco research and prevention and cessation programs.

Since March, the ranks of Prop. 29 supporters, though still a majority among likely voters, have decreased by 14 percentage points to 53 percent, according to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The No on 29 campaign has raised about $45 million to defeat the measure, with most of it coming from two major tobacco companies, Philip Morris USA and RJ Reynolds Company.

Pam Granger, the North Coast tobacco programs manager for the American Lung Association, said she'll spend the weekend talking with voters on the phone in an effort to counter the TV advertising barrage funded by the opposition.

Silver Chalfin, the Sonoma County health officer, said that raising the cost of cigarettes will result in fewer young people buying them, because they are "sensitive to the price of cigarettes." She said Prop. 29, which raises the price of cigarettes by 20 percent, would result in a 13.7 percent decrease in young people smoking.

"It's estimated it would stop 228,000 California kids from smoking," she said, adding that many become addicted to smoking in their younger years.

Michael Carneggie, the owner of Perry's Delicatessen on Mendocino Avenue in front of Santa Rosa High School, said he's all for getting people to quit smoking, but he's not sure a tax increase would make a difference.

Carneggie said most of the people who come into his deli to buy cigarettes are 18-year-old high school students. If Prop. 29 passes, the price of a pack of cigarettes will increase to just under $7, he said.

"I think somehow, someway they'll figure out how to get the money," he said.