Frontline Workers Are Tackling Big Tobacco With Prop 56

As a respiratory therapist I see the devastation tobacco use causes every day. Whether I am treating a child whose smoke-filled environment triggers her asthma, or an adult with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who is still in the iron grip of nicotine addiction, the human toll of tobacco use is staggering. If an infectious respiratory disease or terrorist attack with poison gas inflicted this level of suffering and loss on our people, we would treat them – rightly – like a catastrophe requiring urgent action.

Yet, each year smoking kills 40,000 Californians, more deaths than guns, car accidents, HIV, alcohol, and illegal drugs combined, and we treat it as a public health problem, not a public health emergency. Our tobacco taxes, for example, are 37th highest in the nation. As a result, the barrier to entry is low, and seventeen thousand California kids start smoking every year. One third of them will die from it.

That’s why I and other healthcare workers support Prop 56, which increases the tax on cigarettes and helps fund prevention programs and offset the costs of tobacco-use to our state.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Lung Association in California, California State PTA, some of the state’s largest school boards, pediatricians, children’s advocacy groups, and hundreds more supporting Prop 56.

Increasing the price of tobacco products is the single most effective way to reduce tobacco use, and the U.S. Surgeon General says that is particularly true among youth. And in every state that has significantly raised its tobacco tax, smoking rates have gone down. For every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes, teen smoking drops by up to 7 percent.

While the Yes on 56 movement continues to grow, two tobacco companies are entirely funding opposition to the measure — a deceptive campaign of smoke and lies aimed at tricking California voters.

Having invested more than $66 million to fight Prop 56, their efforts include blanketing the airwaves with deceptive advertising. While forcing California taxpayers to spend $3.5 billion each year on smoking-related healthcare costs through Medi-Cal, Big Tobacco has spent nearly $200 million on lobbying and campaign contributions to keep California’s tobacco tax low.

But if we healthcare workers and our brothers and sisters in other labor unions can spread the word, we can fight – and beat – their obscene, toxic, life-taking wealth with our numbers and our commitment to our communities’ health.

My union supports Prop 56 because so many of us work on the frontlines of healthcare – we know that the human costs are grotesque, and that the financial costs to our entire healthcare system are unsustainable.

It’s time for California’s workers to flex our muscles against Big Tobacco.

Jernetta Backus is a Respiratory Therapist at Washington Hospital, Fremont, CA., member SEIU-UHW

This is the seventh installment of California Labor’s Top Props, a blog series on priority propositions for working Californians. Click here to see other posts in the series.