SACRAMENTO (CBS/AP) — A bill to raise California’s cigarette tax by $2 per pack was introduced Wednesday in the state Senate, a hike that supporters say would curb smoking deaths and critics argue would place an unnecessary burden on consumers and small businesses.

Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, introduced the distribution tax, which also would apply to electronic cigarettes.

If approved, it would be California’s first tobacco tax hike since 1998. The current tax of 87 cents per pack is well below that of most other states. The national average is $1.60 per pack and New York charges $4.35 per pack.

“Tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States and around the world and yet, we know how to win the fight against tobacco,” said Pan, who is a pediatrician. “With every 10 percent increase in cigarette prices, youth smoking rates decline by about 7 percent. With that in mind, it makes no sense that 32 other states have a higher tax rate than California.”

A Field Poll released Wednesday found that California registered voters favored a $2-per-pack tobacco tax hike by a margin of 67 percent to 30 percent. The poll surveyed 1,555 voters and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

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If approved, the tax hike would raise an estimated $1.5 billion in its first year for state health services to low-income families, tobacco-related medical research and anti-smoking programs.

The bill says 40,000 Californians die from tobacco-related illness each year. Proponents, a coalition that includes the California Medical Association and the American Lung Association, argue it would reduce tobacco use and save the state some of the billions of dollars spent each year on tobacco-related illnesses.

Opponents argue that the state doesn’t need yet another tax increase on tobacco distributors as it continues recovering from the bruising recession.

The bill was introduced during a special legislative session on health care along with a series of other tobacco-related measures.

Approval would require two-thirds approval by both houses and many Republican lawmakers have said they oppose a tax increase.

Supporters say if the tax doesn’t pass in the Legislature, they will take it to the voters. Last month, the secretary of state approved backers of an initiative to begin gathering signatures to place a tax question on the 2016 state ballot.

However, it could be an uphill battle. Tobacco companies spent heavily to defeat two other tax-increase proposals in the last decade and this summer successfully killed several pieces of legislation seeking to increase tobacco regulations.

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