Fight for a tobacco tax showed lack of common sense

As we write this, it looks like Proposition 29 has narrowly gone down to defeat. According to spokespeople for the Yes on 29 campaign, it was the money from Big Tobacco that defeated the tobacco tax measure.  Truth be told, it was common sense – or, more accurately, the lack thereof — that beat them.

Prop. 29 had a lot going for it: It would have raised money for critical research and reduced the number of smokers, meaning lower hospital bills and other medical expenses that eventually we all pay for.  That would have meant less pressure on state and local budgets to support smoking-related healthcare.

Common sense should have told the campaign that, with such well-funded opposition, this was going to be close and that the crucial swing vote would be communities of color. Not only has California had a nonwhite majority for many years, but people of color are already saddled with higher levels of chronic disease and lower rates of health insurance coverage. We were a natural constituency for Prop. 29.

Most importantly, we learned from our battle against Proposition 23 in 2010 that concerted, targeted outreach to African American, Asian and Latino voters makes a difference. Our organizations spearheaded a campaign, Communities United Against Prop. 23, that consciously reached out to these communities. We distributed literature in multiple languages. We worked with the ethnic media. We enlisted well known leaders such as Van Jones and Dolores Huerta to help spread the word.

Our efforts paid off and communities of color turned out big-time against Prop. 23. Demolishing stereotypes, people of color stood up to defend the environment even more than whites did.

Why? Because we made it relevant to these voters. We spoke in their language, framed it in terms that were relevant to them, and used the media sources they trust.

To all appearances, Yes on 29 did none of these things. They appeared to take our votes for granted. And, barring a late miracle, they lost.

Big Tobacco made at least a token effort to target voters of color. They got couple of high-profile minority spokespeople to write op-eds in ethnic media outlets and enlisted a few ethnic business groups to sign on to their campaign. But the truth is that Big Tobacco spent most if not all of its $50 million on television, and invested little to nothing in minority owned media. A serious campaign aimed at voters of color could have run rings around these guys.

In the end, Big Tobacco used its massive war chest to wage one of the most misleading campaigns in history.  And they got away with it, in part because the Yes campaign took a generic (dare we say “white bread”?) approach, and didn’t try to meet the majority of California voters where they live. They didn’t reach out to the voters who could have made the difference.

(Parenthically, it’s worth noting that this is yet another reason why we need to reform our initiative system: Imagine if those commercials had been required to say, “Paid for by Phillip Morris and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.”)

Color blindness, especially in a state like California, is a strategy for failure.  It’s time to learn from our mistakes and recognize and reach out to all voters in this diverse state.

Ed’s Note: Jakada Imani is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Vien Truong is Director of Green Assets at The Greenlining Institute,

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