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Tom and the People vs. Big Tobacco

Children, low-income communities, and people of color are disproportionately targeted by tobacco ads and victimized by the industry. Thousands were getting hooked every year, and the medical costs of tobacco-related diseases were costing California taxpayers billions. In 2016, Tom Steyer led a broad coalition of Californians to victory against Big Tobacco to reduce smoking, save lives, and improve health care.

Fighting against the devastating harm that tobacco inflicts on people and communities hit home for Tom. He appeared in a TV ad where he revealed, “My mom Marnie smoked her whole life, and then she died of lung cancer. So I have a personal interest in helping prevent smoking.” But he also saw this as a moral responsibility. He couldn’t stand by while corporate interests manipulated the government for profit over public health.

Although the tobacco companies had successfully defeated 18 previous attempts in a row to raise tobacco taxes, Tom took the issue to the people. Together they gathered 1 million signatures — nearly twice the required number — to put a historic $2-a-pack cigarette tax increase on the statewide ballot: Prop 56.

In response, the country’s biggest tobacco companies poured over $70 million into opposition messaging. Most of the money went into ads that were widely condemned as misleading and divisive. In the end, the hard-fought, six-month campaign by the people-powered coalition ended Big Tobacco’s nearly 20-year dominance of the state.

“This is a David and Goliath situation.”
─ Tom Steyer

Carol McGruder, co-chair of the African-American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, praised Tom for confronting Big Tobacco aggressively. “He was more of a street fighter. He wasn’t afraid to do what was necessary.”

Prop 56 won in a landslide with nearly two-thirds of the vote. The new tobacco taxes went into effect in April 2017, adding $1.4 billion to the state’s health and education budgets in the first 15 months.

Marnie and Tom’s dad, Roy, raised him with a core belief that actions speak louder than words. Prop 56’s success is just one example of that value — something that continues to define Tom and his campaign for president.