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In California, It's Big Tobacco Vs Lance Armstrong

GARANCE BURKE

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) â¿¿ Fabled as a mecca for the health-conscious and fitness-obsessed, California is also one of only a few states that has not hiked its cigarette taxes in the last decade, meaning it is less expensive to light up in Los Angeles and San Francisco than in many other places in the country.

The tobacco industry wants to keep it that way.

It has amassed nearly $50 million to kill an initiative before California voters that has been championed by cycling star Lance Armstrong and supported by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has donated $500,000 to its campaign.

Marlboro-maker Altria Group Inc., RJ Reynolds and other tobacco heavyweights have spent their millions on a media blitz to snuff out Proposition 29, which would slap an additional $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products to fund cancer research.

If the tax passes, California would still have only the 16th highest tax rate in the nation, at $1.87 per pack. But tobacco companies and their allies say that voter approval of an extra tax in the nation's largest cigarette market would crush owners of small businesses and spark anti-smoking measures elsewhere.

They say the measure on Tuesday's primary ballot is flawed and would create a giant, unaccountable bureaucracy.

"We all know that Big Tobacco has poured tens of millions in this campaign saying, 'Don't tax us any more,'" said Armstrong, who beat testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs more than a decade ago. "But the fact of the matter is the product they sell leads to about $9 billion a year in health care costs for California. I think if this passes, other states will follow."

Its passage is uncertain.

The Public Policy Institute of California found that support for the initiative dropped from 67 percent in March to 53 percent by late May, reflecting the blizzard of radio and TV ads from the tobacco industry.

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