Readers know we frequently use this space to weigh in on the deadly risks of drunken driving, guns and the abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs. But there’s one thing that’s still a bigger killer than all of those combined — tobacco.

Each year, some 480,000 people in the nation die of tobacco-related diseases, many of them unable to kick an addiction that started long before. And for every person who dies because of smoking, at least 30 more people are living with a serious smoking-related illness.

On Nov. 8, voters will have a chance to lower that number significantly by approving Proposition 56, which calls for an increase in the state’s cigarette tax by $2 a pack. It also calls for an equivalent tax increase on e-cigarettes and other products containing nicotine derived from tobacco.

This increase is long overdue.

Currently, the state tax on cigarettes is 87 cents a pack, which is the 37th lowest of all the states and hasn’t been raised since 1998. Since then, other states have been raising taxes and, in the process, raising funds to help battle the health complications that come from smoking.

California’s tax is paltry compared to states such as Michigan ($2 per pack), Minnesota ($3), Rhode Island ($3.75) and New York ($4.35 per pack). Cities such as Chicago, where the combined taxes on a pack is $6.16, and New York City, where the tax is $5.85, are even farther ahead.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the weighted average price for a pack of cigarettes nationwide is roughly $6 per pack. That means California cigarettes are a bargain compared to other areas.

What’s known is that when the price of cigarettes goes up, sales go down. History has shown that for every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes, teen smoking drops by up to 7 percent. That’s a welcome trade off because roughly 90 percent of smokers start when they are in their teen years.

Yes, Big Tobacco is squawking about such an increase and funding the campaign against Proposition 56. But don’t believe the scare tactics that this is a handout to special interests. It isn’t. Most of the money will go to expanded medical services for poor people with some funds for tobacco control and research.

While a $2 a pack increase may sound like a lot, here’s the number that is far more scary: $19.16 per pack. That’s the estimated national average of smoking-caused health costs combined with the cost of lost productivity. In short, California taxpayers spend roughly $3.5 billion each year on treating cancer and other tobacco-related diseases. And that’s just for Medi-Cal patients.

A broad coalition of organizations are supporting this, from the American Heart Association and the Cancer Action Network to the California Medical Association and the Sierra Club. That’s because they know this kind of change can and will make a difference — by stopping smoking-related illnesses before they ever start.

The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Proposition 56.