Tobacco company ads take aim at Proposition 29

Lance Armstrong Prop 29

Every morning when UC San Diego physicist Herbert Levine laces up his running shoes and chugs alongside Mission Bay, his earphones crackle with radio ads opposing a proposed $1-per-pack cigarette tax to raise money for cancer research.

The ads are funded by the tobacco industry. They call Proposition 29, the tobacco tax that state voters will consider on the June 5 ballot, a bureaucratic boondoggle, an initiative that would raise mountains of cash for research but not a penny for treatment.

Lance Armstrong Prop 29

Lance Armstrong with supporters of Prop 29 at Children's Hospital

“They’re saying cancer research is bad? It’s a strange message,” said Levine, whose own work relies on the fundamentals of physics to help unlock the mysteries of cancer.

He’s leaving next month for Rice University, lured away in part by the fruits of a $3-billion bond measure Texas voters approved in 2007 to fund the study and treatment of the disease.

The Texas success helped inspire the American Cancer Society, former Democratic state Sen. Don Perata and others in California to launch a similar campaign in Proposition 29 — but with a big difference. They hitched it to a new tobacco tax.

The upside, they say: Along with raising more than $800 million for research on tobacco-related diseases and prevention programs, the hike in cigarette prices will stop 220,000 kids from starting to smoke and encourage 100,000 current smokers to quit.

The downside? Two of the nation’s largest tobacco companies — Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. — and their affiliates have spent more than $30 million against the initiative thus far, dwarfing the $4 million raised by proponents.

The Proposition 29 campaign, Californians for a Cure, is relying heavily on social media, including blasts to Armstrong’s 3.4 million followers on Twitter, and husbanding its limited funds by airing 15-second television ads and staffing volunteer phone banks. Livestrong contributed $1.5 million to the campaign, with other major backing coming from the American Cancer Society and American Heart Assn.

Proposition 29 supporters call the ads and criticism a ruse, orchestrated by tobacco companies that expect to lose nearly $800 million a year in cigarette sales if the initiative passes.

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