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California taxpayers bought a Super Bowl ad [Updated]

February 11, 2011 |  2:16 pm

Squeezed between the Doritos and Budweiser ads during the Super Bowl was a spot paid for by a surprising source: California tax dollars.

Buying up airtime during the single most expensive television event of the year is probably not the first place one would expect deficit-plagued California to spend its money. The ad, exhorting people to quit smoking at a likely six-figure cost to taxpayers, comes as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed gutting many healthcare services.

The commercial was a part of a $14.5-million television campaign this year, funded by a portion of a 25-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes that voters approved in 1988.

The ad’s existence amid a $25.4-billion deficit is a symptom of California’s byzantine system of lockbox budgeting, which has constrained and confounded state officials for years. Because voters earmarked the cigarette tax dollars 23 years ago for a particular purpose, the money cannot be spent differently without a public referendum.

Lew Uhler, president of the National Taxation Limitation Committee, called the ad an example of the “worst kind of abuse” of budgeting by initiative, particularly as taxes could be raised and programs cut this year.

“It shows the excesses to which this kind of uncontrolled spending can be taken,” Uhler said. “We should be subjecting all public expenditures to the give-and-take of the legislative process.”

For her part, Colleen Stevens, chief of the Tobacco Control Media Campaign at the California Department of Public Health, said she was thrilled by the Super Bowl exposure. The year’s football game drew a record 111 million viewers nationally, according the Nielsen’s estimates. The state's ad aired at least in Los Angeles and Sacramento.

“It’s one of the most viewed shows all year. People are watching it, paying attention and they’re doing something that almost never happens: They’re paying attention to the commercials,” Stevens said.

The exact price paid to air the Super Bowl ad wasn’t knowable, she said, because it was just one piece of a broader, 18-week media buy. Nationally, airing a 30-second Super Bowl ad cost a reported $3 million.

Lori Misicka, sales manager for KTXL, the Fox affiliate in Sacramento, which, like The Times is owned by Tribune Co., said the average price of a 30-second Super Bowl slot was $52,000 at her station. She would not say precisely how much the anti-tobacco commercial cost due to confidentiality rules.

A sales representative from KTTV, the Fox affiliate in Los Angeles, did not return a call asking how much the ad cost there, but typically a Los Angeles ad buy costs several times more than the far smaller Sacramento market.

Stevens said two decades of anti-tobacco commercials have played a major role in reducing California smoking rates to among the lowest in the nation, and the results have saved -- as is claimed in the ad -- $86 billion in healthcare costs. And she said the Super Bowl ad would pay off in the long term for California.

[Updated 3:55pm: The embedded commercial has been removed from this post but can be be viewed on tobaccofreeca.com.]

-- Shane Goldmacher in Sacramento