One Million Lives and 86 Billion Dollars Saved… California’s Proposition 99

In the late 80s the tobacco industry mounted an "unprecedented campaign," to defeat California's Proposition 99, an initiative designed to increase the California tax on cigarettes by $.25 and devote a substantial portion of the funds to discouraging tobacco use. The Tobacco Institute recognized that the initiative posed one of the greatest threats to tobacco consumption it had ever encountered.

My friend Ken Lake sent me an article from the Sacramento Bee a few weeks ago. It reported on the latest results from California’s Proposition 99, a massive tobacco use prevention effort kicked off by a tobacco tax initiative passed by California voters in the late 80s.

According to the California Department of Health Services, an estimated one million lives and 86 billion dollars in health care costs have been saved because of prevention programs funded by the tax. California now has the second lowest incidence of tobacco use in the nation and the state is virtually smoke-free. It has the lowest incidence of cancer for 6 of the 9 cancers caused by tobacco use. Fewer teens smoke in California than any other state.

These figures are remarkable. How many times in history has a single act saved one million lives? How often do health care costs go down instead of up? And there is more, much more.

Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in America and a major factor in preventable death and disease worldwide. The revolution in disease prevention that took place in California is a revolution that has reverberated throughout the United States and around the world, a fact recognized by both the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

As a result, the million lives and billions of dollars saved in California can be multiplied several times over on a national and global basis. Prevention works.

Credit for the success of Proposition 99 in the quarter of century since its inception goes to a cast of hundreds, if not thousands. Certainly the Tobacco Control Section of the California Department of Health Services and its dedicated staff have been critical but dozens of organizations, hundreds of staff people and thousands of volunteers have also played key roles.

In the beginning, however, in the very, very beginning, it was a handful of people in Sacramento who put the effort together and made the critical decisions that would allow Proposition 99 to become the revolution in prevention it has become.

I was privileged to be one of those people.

Over the next two months I will do a series of blogs that provide an inside look at what happened during Prop 99’s first critical months starting in September of 1986. It’s a story of how and why a small group of friends decided to take on one of the worlds most powerful, amoral industries in the cause of preventing the death and crippling disease caused by tobacco use.

It’s a good story, worth telling on its own merits. Greed, power politics, human emotion and sacrifice are all included. There’s even some humor. But I also want to make the point that a few dedicated and knowledgeable individuals can make a significant difference. It’s an important message for today’s world where ideology, ambition and greed triumph over working together in the common interest.

In my next blog I will tell the story  of Prop 99’s beginning and how I became involved. Believe me, I did not start out to become an anti-tobacco warrior.

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