Advocates for Proposition 56 showed up on Tuesday at Golden Valley Health Center to urge residents to vote “yes” and inform them of what will happen if the proposition is approved.
Proposition 56 is calling for an increase on the tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as electronic cigarettes.
The increase will add $2 per pack of cigarettes, raising the tax from $0.87 to $2.87. The expected $1 billion to $1.4 billion in revenue would primarily go toward health care for low-income Californians, like Medi-Cal, and 13 percent would go toward smoking prevention.
For somewhere like Merced, where more than half the population is on Medi-Cal, the passing of Prop 56. has the potential to benefit a lot of people, said Anthony Wright, executive director for Health Access.
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According to the California Department of Health Services, Merced County has the second-highest rate of individuals enrolled in Medi-Cal. Other Valley counties like Tulare, Madera, Fresno, San Joaquin and Kern also have higher Medi-Cal enrollment rates than the state average.
Dr. Eduardo Villarama, regional medical director for Golden Valley, said he has had countless patients who have suffered from tobacco-related illnesses that affect them in ways far beyond the physical.
Villarama recalled one patient, a 55-year-old who was the sole provider for a six-person household, who came in because he had a cough that was lasting months.
Unfortunately, Villarama said, they found a mass on his lung that turned out to be cancer. The patient had been smoking since he was 16, he said.
“Longer consumption (of smoking) creates more effects,” Villarama said. “It’s not just physical but emotional and spiritual. Now what is the family going to do?”
The passing of Prop. 56 could generate $1 billion for Medi-Cal, helping to improve access to care in Merced County and the Valley.
“$3.5 billion is spent every year on tobacco illnesses that are preventable whether it’s cigarettes or vaping,” Wright said. “Big tobacco should be held accountable for the costs.”
However, not everyone agrees Prop. 56 is the best remedy.
Mike Siegel, owner of Cigar Monkey, a premium tobacco, cigar and pipe shop on Canal Street in Merced, said if the funding for Medi-Cal is an issue, then maybe they should rethink or look at how the money is being managed and distributed.
“There’s already tons of money coming in from cigarette smokers,” Siegel said. “It’s like we’re paying for other people’s health issues.”
Siegel said passage of Prop. 56 would definitely hurt mom-and-pop tobacco shops that would be unable to compete against larger chains. Many would go out of business, he said.
Some smokers might choose to buy their products online, out of state or through the black market, Siegel said.
“There is no actual positive, constructive thing coming out of the prop on the retail perspective,” he said. “In reality, folks supportive of Prop. 56 have a misguided view on what the prop says and what it’s doing.”
Siegel said Cigar Monkey is there to serve people who have made the decision to “pursue their hobby with premium tobacco,” and the passing of Prop. 56 has the potential to greatly impact his business.
Timothy Gibbs, senior director of government relations for the American Cancer Society, said the measure is designed to help people quit smoking. He said the proposition would result in less smoking, and that’s why tobacco companies don’t support it and have spent $200 million in the past decade opposing tax increases.
For every 10 percent tax increase on tobacco, he said, there is a 4 percent decrease in smoking overall and a 6 percent decrease in youth smokers.
“It’s time to tell big tobacco to pay up,” Gibbs said.
According to the 2016 Community Health Assessment from the Merced County Department of Public Health, 11.4 percent of Merced County’s general population are current smokers, and 30.8 percent have smoked at some point.
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486