Oregon voters defeated a tobacco tax proposal billed as an expansion of children’s health coverage in yesterday’s election. The relevant question for similar plans at the national and state level is, what motivated voters? (We’ll assume not all of them read our analysis of the measure.) Generally speaking, tobacco taxes poll well despite the (perhaps grudging) sympathy that Americans still have for smokers. A few polls, including one last August, showed a majority of voters favoring the Oregon tax proposal. Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who championed the measure (though, with his own approval ratings relatively low, he might not have been much help) blames the fact that his campaign was outspent by tobacco companies. From the Bend Bulletin: “The governor is saying that this is not a vote about whether Oregonians want health care for kids,” said Kulongoski spokeswoman Patty Wentz. “It’s a vote you get when the tobacco industry puts in $12 million, and it will not change the fact that health care for kids is his top priority.” The spending for and against the measure set a new high-water mark for campaign contributions in Oregon. Tobacco companies poured $12 million into Oregon to oppose it. Proponents, which included the American Cancer Association, hospitals and labor unions, combined to spend $3.4 million. “It was unprecedented,” said Cathy Kaufmann, manager for the Healthy Kids Oregon campaign. “That $12 million was twice as much as you need to confuse Oregon voters.” Setting aside the low blow from the campaign in favor of the tax–that it only takes $3 each to confuse Oregon’s registered voters–I’d like to think Kulongoski has it right on at least one point. The vote wasn’t “against the children” but against a funding mechanism that sidestepped taxpayer protections in the Oregon Constitution and seemed otherwise contrived and unfair at a basic level. Did the TV ads, accounting for the bulk of campaign spending, help “confuse” or educate Oregon voters? Some of the ads on both sides didn’t even mention that the measure was a tobacco tax. See samples for and against and judge for yourself.
Skaidra Smith-Heisters is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.
Her research is part of Reason's New Environmentalism program, launched by Lynn Scarlett, which develops innovative solutions to environmental problems and emphasizes the benefits of local decisions over Washington's command-and-control regulations.
Smith-Heisters is a graduate of the University of California at Davis program in Nature and Culture. Prior to joining Reason, she worked in habitat restoration, endangered species management and natural resources planning with the California State Parks system.
She has been extensively involved in grassroots journalism and political organizing in San Francisco's North Bay area, where she currently lives.