Policy Studies Tobacco Harm Reduction

PROP 56: Tobacco initiative fails to make crucial distinctions

Steven Greenhut
Resident Senior Fellow and Western Region Director, State Affairs
Cameron Smith
Senior Fellow


As the United States’ failed experiment with Prohibition was drawing to a close, two major groups fought until the bitter end to maintain it: those morally opposed to alcohol consumption and those who made money peddling illegal drinks. The economist Bruce Yandle coined the phrase “Baptists and bootleggers” to describe this sort of strange bedfellows alignment, in which both those who favor a given regulation and those who profit from undermining that regulation often find common cause.

That’s a crucial concept to grasp, as California expands its efforts to further tax and regulate not only already highly taxed and regulated tobacco products, but newer – and by all accounts, vastly safer — nicotine-vapor products. California voters this year will be asked on the Nov. 8 ballot to weigh Proposition 56, which would increase the state’s cigarette tax by $2 a pack and apply comparable levels of taxation both to other tobacco products, such as cigars and chewing tobacco, and to e-cigarettes and e-liquids that contain nicotine.

Evidence surveyed by Public Health England suggests e-cigarettes are 95 percent safer than traditional combustible cigarettes, which is why the U.K. government now recommends promoting their use to improve public health. With many cigarette smokers having switched to vaping to cut down or quit smoking, the expansion of tobacco restrictions and tax rates to vaping raises many eyebrows, even from some physicians and health advocates.

But Proposition 56 isn’t about the pragmatic goal of a healthier California. Instead, ideological zealots opposed to any nicotine- related products have entered an unholy alliance with government profiteers to undermine the cost incentive for smokers to switch from traditional tobacco cigarettes to far less-harmful vapor alternatives.

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