The outcome of Tuesday's tobacco tax initiative remains as hazy as a smoke-filled cafe.

With about 1 million absentee and provisional ballots still to be counted, the Secretary of State's Office reported that Proposition 29 was losing by a razor-thin margin. Supporters and opponents agreed Wednesday that the race was still too close to call, with 49.2 percent of voters in favor of raising cigarette taxes by $1 a pack and 50.8 percent opposed. The final tally may not be known for two weeks.

However, under one scenario analyzed by this newspaper, the measure backed by health organizations is not likely to regain the lead it enjoyed for several hours Tuesday night as the vote seesawed.

Assuming that absentee ballots in California's 10 largest counties trend nearly the same way as Tuesday's precinct results, the measure could lose by the same margin of 1.6 percentage points -- or slightly more than 100,000 votes.

About 84 percent of voters live in those 10 counties, said Stephen Weir, registrar of voters for Contra Costa County and a past president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.

The primary reason the initiative could lose is the geographic distribution of the uncounted votes. Nearly half were cast in Southern California counties and the Inland Empire. Voters there -- Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- rejected the state's first cigarette tax in 14 years.


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For instance, only 41 percent of Orange County voters supported Proposition 29 -- and officials there Wednesday afternoon still had 113,199 votes left to count.

Votes to be counted

Although the Bay Area and coastal counties supported the measure by wide margins, there don't appear to be enough uncounted votes in those regions for the measure to regain ground.

Proponents were holding out hope Wednesday that a larger percentage of mail-in ballots supported the measure than those who showed up at the polls. That's possible because some of the absentees were cast when there was broader support for the tax, before opponents mounted a multimillion dollar ad campaign that proponents contended misled voters.

A number of anti-tax groups took the lead in the opposition campaign, but tobacco giants Philip Morris USA and R.J. Reynolds bankrolled the entire effort, outspending the "yes" campaign $46 million to $10 million.

In a written statement Wednesday, proponents said, "With less than 1 percent separating defeat from victory, we remain vigilant and ever hopeful, no matter how long the odds. Frankly, our campaign of cancer survivors and their family members are used to this kind of a fight."

A spokeswoman for the No on 29 campaign said the group is encouraged by the results but not ready to declare victory.

"We've got that 63,000 vote lead," spokeswoman Beth Miller said. "But we know from past elections, there are potentially hundreds of thousands of votes left to be counted."

Media blitz

Whether the measure wins, or loses by a hair, the big-bucks media campaign, as well as the historically low turnout of about 24 percent, had an enormous influence, experts said.

If Proposition 29 passed, about $735 million in annual revenues would go to research, smoking-cessation programs, facility purchases and law enforcement efforts to cut down on black market tobacco sales.

The opposition argued that the initiative would create a new government bureaucracy run by unelected officials who could decide to send the revenues to out-of-state research facilities at a time when tax dollars are needed to fix the state's $15.7 billion budget deficit.

Supporters contended that tobacco companies were just trying to protect nearly $1 billion in profits and were trying to distract voters from the real issues.

"The ads worked," said Terry Christensen, a political science professor at San Jose State. "They may not have persuaded everyone. But they at least confused voters. And when voters don't understand an initiative, they tend to vote no."

Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482.


waiting for tobacco tax results from state's biggest counties

County-------- Uncounted ballots*-------------- Percentage: yes votes----------Percentage: no votes
Los Angeles-------162,117---------------------------------- 49.3 percent-----------------50.7 percent
San Diego---------135,000---------------------------------- 48.6 percent-----------------51.4 percent
Orange-------------113,199----------------------------------41 percent--------------------59 percent
Riverside------------49,000----------------------------------39.4 percent------------------60.6 percent
San Bernardino----30,000-----------------------------------37.8 percent-----------------62.2 percent
Santa Clara---------85,000-----------------------------------64.3 percent-----------------35.7 percent
Alameda-------------61,000------------------------------------64 percent-------------------36 percent
Sacramento---------84,000-------------------------------------47.4 percent----------------52.6 percent
Contra Costa--------31,901-------------------------------------58.3 percent----------------41.7 percent
Fresno---------------29,500-------------------------------------38.4 percent-----------------61.6 percent
Sources: California Secretary of State, county registrars
*As of Wednesday