SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California initiative to increase the tax on tobacco to pay for cancer research has failed by less than a percentage point after remaining too close to call for more than two weeks.
With about 5 million votes cast, "no" on Proposition 29 led by about 27,000 votes with about 105,000 left to count. The Associated Press analyzed areas where the uncounted votes remain and determined Friday there were not enough places where "yes" was winning to overcome the deficit.
The plan to add $1 to the cigarette tax was led by cyclist Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor. Tobacco companies, led by Philip Morris, poured millions of dollars into an ad campaign that whittled away support. Polls showed approval peaked around two-thirds in March but had fallen dramatically by the June 5 balloting.
Support for the initiative was strongest in the San Francisco Bay Area, while more conservative places like Southern California's Inland Empire opposed it.
Proponents said they would be back.
"This came so close, I think this is worth another try," said Stan Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. "I think it would be horrible if Philip Morris and Reynolds get away with this."
He suggested tobacco foes might turn to the Legislature, though lawmakers routinely reject attempts to raise tobacco taxes.
The opposition campaign will wait until all the votes have been counted before declaring victory, spokeswoman Beth Miller said.
Opponents of the measure raised $47 million to fight it, a huge sum even by California standards. By comparison, Jerry Brown spent about $36 million in his successful 2010 bid to become governor of California. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies spent $47 million to beat back his recall challenge on June 5.
Armstrong and a coalition of anti-smoking groups raised about $12 million to bolster the measure, including $500,000 from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
While raising the price of tobacco has been shown to reduce smoking rates, especially in young people, campaign ads sponsored by tobacco companies focused on pocketbook issues. The ads noted money would be raised in California through the tax but wouldn't necessarily stay in the state for research, and raised the specter of an out-of-control bureaucracy that would be set up to oversee collection and distribution of the money.
The strategy didn't just stir doubt in the minds of voters.
Several major newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, opposed the measure while expressing general support for such sin taxes and reluctance to side with tobacco companies. They argued that the revenue should go directly to the state, which now faces a $15.2 billion deficit.
The result was reminiscent a 2006 California cigarette tax measure that led by wide margins in early polling until tobacco companies spent $66 million to defeat it with ads featuring physicians.
California was once at the forefront of smoking restrictions and taxes, but the famously health-conscious state has not raised tobacco taxes since 1998. If the new tax had passed, California would still have had only the 16th highest tax rate in the nation.
Some smoking foes said they are weighing the idea of tackling the issue in the state Legislature.
The overwhelming majority of recent tobacco taxes across the nation have been approved in statehouses, not at the polls. But in California, where new taxes require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, lawmakers have defeated more than 30 attempts to raise tobacco taxes in the last 30 years.
Missouri voters are expected to weigh in on a tobacco tax increase in November and similar taxes are working their way through the legislative process in the Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Illinois.