LOS ANGELES (AP) — Big Tobacco's success in branding a proposed California cigarette tax as a government boondoggle sent a message that could echo in other states as votes trended toward the opposition.
Through a barrage of campaign ads, the industry was able to cut support for a $1-a-pack cigarette tax backed by cycling legend Lance Armstrong from a two-thirds majority in March to a dead heat on Election Day.
While the outcome remained unclear Wednesday afternoon, experts said the feat of undermining the once-popular measure could scare off tobacco foes in other states.
The $47 million ad campaign — which scarcely mentioned the word "tobacco" — showed that cigarette makers are shifting away from arguing about their product and looking for other ways to attack tax initiatives.
"If they talk about smokers, most people in California aren't smokers," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Pomona. "Instead, they talk about wasteful spending and most people in California are against wasteful spending."
In March, a statewide poll suggested Proposition 29, which would have used tax revenue to fund cancer research, would pass with two-thirds approval. With hundreds of thousands of votes still to be counted on Wednesday, it could be days or longer before a winner is declared.
Taxes have been shown to reduce smoking rates, especially in young people, but in campaign ads, tobacco companies ignored the issue of smoking and of taxes entirely and instead focused on trouble the state could run into trying to distribute the revenue.
The strategy didn't just sow doubt in the minds of individual voters.
A slew of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, opposed the measure while proclaiming their reluctance to side with tobacco companies and general support for such sin taxes. They argued that the revenue should go directly to the state, which Gov. Jerry Brown announced last month now faces a deficit of $16 billion.
The situation was reminiscent a 2006 California cigarette tax measure that led by wide margins until tobacco companies spent $66 million to defeat it with ads, including one featuring a Central Valley physician. That same physician was the centerpiece of this year's anti-tax campaign.
Proposition 29 led in early returns for much of Tuesday as mail-in ballots were counted. But as precincts began to tally the votes cast on Election Day, the measure fell behind and began trailing by a fraction of a percentage point.
Public health workers and anti-smoking advocates said that they would not let the bitter California fight discourage them from challenging the tobacco industry in the future.
"They don't like to lose a big public campaign like this because they know it encourages us," said Danny McGoldrick of the Washington, D.C based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "I think they were trying to send a message to other states not to try this, but I think people are more resolved than ever to take them on."
Armstrong and a coalition of anti-smoking groups say they raised about $12 million to bolster the measure. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made headlines when he kicked in $500,000 to help offset the industry donations.
But the effort was dwarfed by $47 million raised by opponents, a large haul for even the most heated state races. By comparison, Jerry Brown spent about $36 million in his successful 2010 bid to become governor of California and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies spent $47 million to beat back a recall challenge this week.
The nation's most populous state has become a challenge for tobacco tax advocates in recent years. Californians approved a raft of smoking restrictions in the late 1990s and helped drive smokers off the beaches, away from bus stations, and in some cases, out of their own cars and apartments.
The famously health-conscious state has not raised tobacco taxes since 1998, though, and the rest of the country has caught up. If the new tax passed, California would still have only the 16th highest tax rate in the nation.
The overwhelming majority of recent tobacco taxes have been approved in statehouses, not at the polls, according to data compiled for The Associated Press by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Missouri voters are expected to weigh in on a tobacco tax increase in November, and similar proposals await action in the Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Illinois statehouses, according to the campaign.
In California, where the smoking rate is just 12.1 percent, lawmakers have defeated more than 30 attempts to raise tobacco taxes in the last 30 years.
Anti-smoking advocates say that far from discouraging them, each defeat at the ballot teaches them how to make their initiative less vulnerable to attack.
"This shows that spending $47 million can get people confused, and when people are confused they tend to vote no," said Stan Glantz of the University of California, San Francisco's Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education.
If the measure had directed the money straight to the state's hemorrhaging general fund, the opposition campaign would not have been able to raise the specter of the tax dollars leaving California, he said.
"But they would have probably thought of something else," he said.
Hannah Dreier can be reached at https://twitter.com/hannahdreier .