By a margin of less than 1%, California voters yesterday seem to have nixed a ballot measure that would make the state one of the world’s largest supporters of cancer research. But with hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots yet to be counted — many more than the 63,000-vote difference now separating the yes and no sides — the contest may not be over.
Proposition 29, a ballot measure that would add a US$1.00 tax to each pack of cigarettes sold in California, was put before voters on 5 June during the state’s Presidential primary election. If approved, the new tax would generate $735 million by 2013–14 for cancer research, smoking prevention and smoking cessation. Of that, $441 million would fund grants and loans into “prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and potential cures for cancer and tobacco-related diseases.” An additional $110 million would fund new research facilities.
Groups funded by the tobacco industry raised $46.8 million to oppose the measure — nearly four times the amount of money raised in favour of the measure, which was supported by cancer-research organizations and billionaires including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The ad campaign funded by opponents of Proposition 29 seemed to erode support for the measure. In March, 67% of voters surveyed supported it; that figure had dropped to 53% by May.
The measure also suffered because of a perception that research funding should not be the state’s top priority in light of California’s disastrous financial situation. The state’s economic outlook is very different from what it was in 2004, when voters endorsed Proposition 71, a ballot measure that authorized the creation of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the stem-cell research agency. Since then, the state’s finances have taken a dire turn. That has left many voters reluctant to enact more funding for research rather than shoring up funding for other priorities, such as education, that have a more immediate impact on voters’ lives and have been hard-hit by state spending cuts.
Some of Proposition 29’s similarities to CIRM also riled critics. A nine-member “Cancer Research Citizen’s Oversight Committee”, modelled loosely on CIRM’s, would have overseen the funds disbursed under Proposition 29, and would have included doctors, researchers and patient advocates who work in the area of tobacco-related illness. Proposition 29’s opponents said that the board overseeing the funds raised by the measure would therefore suffer from the same concerns about conflicts of interest that have been raised about CIRM’s board, which also consists of doctors, academic officials and patient advocates who all stand to gain from the agency’s programmes.
Proposition 29 would “reproduce [Proposition 71’s] worst flaws,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik in May. “Plainly, every member of the board will represent an employer that thinks it’s in line for some of the money.”
The paper, whose circulation is the largest in the state, recommended a ‘no’ vote on Proposition 29, arguing that it was not necessary given that the US government already spends more to fund research on cancer than on any other medical condition or disease, and that the state needs the money for more pressing priorities.
“California can’t afford to retain its [public-school] teachers, keep all its parks open, give public college students the courses they need to earn a degree or provide adequate home health aides for the infirm or medical care for the poor,” the paper’s editorial board wrote in April. “If the state is going to raise a new $735 million, it should put the money in the general fund rather than dedicating it to an already well-funded research effort.”