California Voters Back Tobacco Tax Hike, Poll Shows

 (Raul Lieberwirth via Flickr)

Fully two-thirds of California voters support a significant increase in tobacco taxes -- $2 a pack -- according to a statewide Field Poll released Wednesday.

California currently ranks 35th in the country with 87 cents per pack in state taxes. (New York is first at $4.35.) There is an additional $1.01 in federal taxes.

Efforts to raise the tax had stalled legislatively earlier this year in Sacramento, but were revived Wednesday when a new bill was introduced at the special session on health care.

Advocates say they are committed to passage of the tax. "The poll suggests there is strong support for (the tax) among the public," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, "and we hope that it helps spur legislative action."

Wright says that if the legislature does not act, there will be a strong push for a ballot measure.

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Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, noted that the 2 to 1 support for the tax was very strong, but cautioned that "this poll was done before any campaign begins."

In 2006, he said, there was a similar tobacco tax on the ballot, a bit more than $2 per pack, and it, too, started out ahead two to one in a Field Poll, but "after the campaign kicked in, with tobacco industry ads" the measure was ultimately defeated 52 to 48, he said.

"So you can't always say with certainty that initiatives that start out with a two to one lead pass," DiCamillo said, "but certainly its chances are a lot better than if it were closer than what we're seeing in this poll."

Fifty percent of those responding the poll said they "favor strongly" increasing the tax while 17 percent said they "favor somewhat." The question posed in the poll included that the money would be used for "smoking cessation programs, research into smoking-related disease and tobacco law enforcement efforts."

In the poll, 68 percent of respondents said they favor raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour each year for five years, which would boost it from $10 per hour next year to $15 per hour by 2021.

Last July, the minimum wage was lifted from $8 to $9 an hour, and it is scheduled to rise again next year to $10 an hour.

The results were part of the ninth annual Field Poll on health policy. It is sponsored by the California Wellness Foundation.  The poll found increasing support for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). More than six in 10 voters (62 percent) now support the law, up from 56 percent last year.

More significantly, for the first time, more than half of voters in all major regions of the state, all races and ethnicities, and all age groups  support the law. DiCamillo said in the years after the 2010 passage of the ACA, support hovered in the 52 to 54 percent range. It was "supportive but fairly stable."

He drew a distinction between strong support for the law in California and the 44 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable views nationally.

Drew Altman is president and CEO of the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on national health issues. In an interview, he said that given how California has "embraced the law and implemented it successfully," the poll results were not surprising to him.

"California shows that the ACA can work if there's political will and support," he said, "and it's such harder to make it work in states where there isn't, which is the picture that we're seeing across the country."

Voters also support expanding Medi-Cal, the state's insurance program for people who are low income, to undocumented immigrants, and this support is growing. Last year, the first year the question was posed in the poll, support was narrow -- 51 to 45 percent. This year, 58 percent of respondents were supportive.

"In California, undocumented people are not an ideological football as they are to some degree in the national debate," Altman said. "They're part of the fabric of life in our state, so people may tend to approach the program from a more pragmatic perspective and believe that it just makes sense to provide health care to people who need it."

Other questions about the health system showed strong support:

  • 58 percent say they are satisfied with how the health care system is working since the passage of the ACA
  • 86 percent are satisfied with their own individual health plan
  • 68 percent believe California has been successful in implementing the ACA in the state. That's up from 60 percent last year.

But the one area presenting a challenge in the poll was cost. Nearly four in 10 respondents said what they pay for health care has increased in the last year. Even at the highest income level -- $100,00 per year or more -- more than one in four respondents said they or a family member had trouble with costs.

Still, as the chart shows, the rate of those reporting difficulty with costs are lower than they were last year across all income levels.

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The poll was conducted June 25-July 16, 2015, among 1,555 registered voters in California in eight languages and dialects. It has an error rate of plus/minus 2.6 percent.

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