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Bid to raise California tobacco tax nears November ballot

In this file photo, cigarette brands manufactured by Reynolds Amercian are displayed at a tobacco shop on July 11, 2014 in San Francisco. An initiative to raise the California's tobacco tax by $2 per pack has enough signatures, which if verified would place the measure on the November ballot. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A well-financed campaign whose backers include billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, medical groups and organized labor has collected enough signatures for a ballot measure to raise California's cigarette tax by $2 per pack, officials said.

The Save Lives California coalition scheduled a news conference Monday at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters office to submit the first signatures in a campaign to nearly triple California's cigarette tax to $2.87 a pack. If enough signatures are verified, the measure would appear on an increasingly crowded Nov. 8 ballot alongside proposals to repeal a ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery stores and require actors to use condoms in adult films.

The announcement comes less than a month after Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to make California the second state in the nation, after Hawaii, to raise the legal age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21. Beginning June 9, it will be a crime in California to sell or give tobacco to anyone except military personnel under age 21.

The proposed tax increase would also apply to electronic cigarettes and other products with tobacco or nicotine. The measure calls for money to be spent on services for California's version of Medicaid, known as Medi-Cal, anti-smoking campaigns and medical research.

The campaign told the California Secretary of State in February that it collected 25 percent of the required 585,407 signatures for a ballot measure to amend the state constitution. It reported this month that it spent $2.8 million during the first three months of the year and had more than $4 million cash on hand.

Major backers include the California Medical Association, California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems and the Service Employees International Union. Steyer, a former hedge fund manager who has spoken about his late mother's three-pack-a-day smoking habit, has contributed $1 million.

Seven measures have collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, and an eighth — placed by the Legislature — would repeal prohibitions on multilingual instruction in public schools. The tobacco tax joins three other measures, including a proposal to legalize recreational use of marijuana, that are pending signature verification.