Attitudes toward smoking are changing from good to bad with glacial slowness in South Carolina, a state with a storied tradition of growing tobacco.
The latest evidence is a poll showing that most of the Palmetto State's likely voters would support raising the cigarette tax, currently the lowest in the nation at 7 cents a pack, to $1 a pack - and to use the new revenues to help pay for health care programs and to discourage teen smoking.
For years it's been an article of faith among most South Carolina lawmakers - especially those who signed anti-tax pledges - that it would be political suicide to support boosting the cigarette tax, even though smoking takes the lives of 5,900 South Carolinians each year, according to the South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative, a nonprofit tobacco-control group that commissioned the poll.
Raising the cigarette tax to the national average of 93 cents a pack would generate about $223 million to offset some of the $1 billion a year the state spends on health care problems related to cigarette smoking, says Carol Reeves, the collaborative's president-elect.
The poll shows that 71 percent of likely voters would support a sharp hike in the cigarette tax if the money is used to curb youth smoking and fund key health care programs.
The lopsided majority cuts across political lines. The poll also indicates voters would be more likely to support candidates who favor boosting the cigarette tax.
It appears the people are ahead of the politicians on this issue, but lawmakers are starting to get the message. The cigarette tax can be increased without paying a political price because it's not like other taxes. Most people understand smoking is unhealthy, and high tax rates deter it.
At the beginning of South Carolina's legislative session, there was virtually no chance of raising the cigarette tax. Now there's movement in the House, where that chamber's recent cut in property taxes created a $116.8 million hole in its 2007 budget that a higher cigarette tax could plug.
With first lady Jenny Sanford leading a statewide stop-smoking campaign, sentiment also is growing to curb smoking in public places. Last month, the American Lung Association gave the state all "F's" on its annual report card for smoke-free air, anti-smoking laws, youth access and tobacco prevention and taxes.
Traditionally, South Carolina lawmakers have seen a smoke ban as Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, does. "The public can pick and choose. You smell smoke in (a restaurant or bar), turn around and leave."
He totally misses the point. Cigarette smoke is not just a matter of clean air vs. property rights. Nor is it about smelly smoke ruining non-smokers' meals. It's about not letting smokers poison other people's health like they're poisoning their own.
If the state won't OK statewide smoking curbs, then legislators should at least allow city and county councils to approve local bans, but so far they haven't even allowed that.
What kind of General Assembly is it that won't let localities protect the health of their residents? One that doesn't have a bright future, we suspect.