The South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative (SCTC), a statewide coalition of nonprofit public health organizations committed to reducing the toll of tobacco use in SC, led the effort to promote a significant increase in the state’s cigarette tax for ten years, from 2000 to 2010. Davis PR managed the campaign for the 2006-2010 legislative sessions. At 7 cents per pack, SC’s tax was the lowest in the nation, had not been raised since 1977 and was dramatically below the national average, which had climbed to $1.41 per pack by the fall of 2009. As statewide poll showed that 74 percent of registered voters would support a 93 cents-per-pack cigarette tax increase with revenues going to healthcare and youth smoking prevention. Challenges including South Carolina’s history as a tobacco-producing state, a governor who refused to support the increase and legislators afraid of raising any tax led to a decade of stalemate.
Working with a statewide coalition and with research and policy assistance from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (TFK), we conducted an extensive public affairs campaign that included media relations, grassroots advocacy, government relations and public policy. Our three target audiences were key legislators, registered SC voters in key legislative districts and the editorial boards of the state’s daily newspapers. Our overall goals for the 2010 session were to pass at least a 50-cent cigarette tax increase, to secure tobacco prevention funding, to maintain editorial support to keep up the public discourse on the issue and to override the anticipated gubernatorial veto. We held grassroots meetings to prepare constituents with the advocacy tools they needed to encourage their legislators to support the initiative; worked with each of the editorial boards of the state’s major daily newspapers to encourage them to write editorials in favor of the legislation and prevention funding; provided educational materials to legislators; mobilized supporters through a website, Facebook page and weekly action alerts; and held regional news conferences throughout South Carolina.
After years of hard work, belief and passionate advocacy, SCTC accomplished its goals of securing an increase in the cigarette tax and funding for tobacco prevention programs. The accomplishment was even more impressive considering that the House and Senate each had to secure a two-thirds vote to override the Governor’s veto of the bill. With 33 votes, the South Carolina Senate overrode the veto and passed a cigarette tax increase for the first time in 33 years. In 2010 alone, we secured more than 25 favorable editorials, most of which specifically referenced TFK’s data and SCTC’s message of youth smoking prevention. SCTC was interviewed for a story in the Wall Street Journal, and newspapers across the US wrote about South Carolina’s historic action. Consistent media advocacy and a focused grassroots effort finally got the legislation passed and will enable generations of South Carolinians to be spared the ravages of tobacco addiction.