An Old Dog Learns New Tricks in Alaska: California’s Proposition 99

Alaska's strong anti-tobacco legislation in the early 80s would help inspire California's Proposition 99 in the late 80s.

The Alaska Lung Association Board recruited me to serve as its Executive Director in 1983. By then I had learned I don’t do boss well. Wisdom would have been ‘just say no,’ but I jumped at the opportunity. I wanted to go play in the woods.

I soon found I was up to my lungs in tobacco politics.

The organization was involved in a major legislative battle to pass a statewide smoke-free law. In addition to requiring restaurants to set aside smoke-free areas and public meetings to be smoke-free, it eliminated smoking in public and private workplaces.

The fight for non-smoker’s rights ‘had come a long ways, baby,’ to quote an old cigarette ad,  but it hadn’t come that far. If we succeeded, Alaska would have the strongest statewide law in the nation.

Heart, Lung and Cancer had taken on an Alaskan size challenge. The incidence of tobacco use in the state was high and Alaska was a do-your-own-thing kind of place. Individual freedom was stitched into the state’s psyche with steel thread.

Telling Alaskans when and where they could smoke might get us shot.

I knew that a majority of the Association’s resources and every skill I had picked up in community organizing and lobbying would be called upon. I also knew we couldn’t succeed by ourselves. We set out to expand our small coalition of Heart, Lung and Cancer, develop a hard-hitting case statement, initiate a media campaign, and triple our lobbying efforts.

One lobbying technique was particularly effective. Alaska’s small population meant the Doctors on our Board and in the Thoracic Society knew every doctor in the state. They committed to contacting the physicians of the individual legislators and having them make personal calls urging support.

When doctors are committed to prevention, they can be a powerful force for public health.

I found myself spending a lot of time in Juneau, the State Capitol, and on the phone talking to Legislators. One call to a rather crusty Senator from the bush was particularly amusing.

“If you had called six months ago I would have told you to go to hell Curt,” he informed me. “But I had a heart attack and my Doctor made me quit smoking. If I can’t smoke, I don’t see why anyone else should be able to either.” It reminded me of my early involvement with GASP in Sacramento.

I laughingly thanked him for his support and was about to hang up when he told me he had another story to share.

“About a month after I quit smoking I noticed my urine really smelled bad. It worried me so I decided to call my doctor. ‘Doc,’ I said, ‘since I’ve stopped smoking my urine has started to stink something terrible.’”

“Do you know what he said to me?” the Senator asked, letting the tension build. I confessed I didn’t have a clue.

“The Doc said, ‘Senator, your urine has always smelled terrible. You couldn’t smell it because you smoked.’”

Working in Alaska did have a particular flair.

After several months of intense effort the bill was ready for floor consideration. I tallied up our committed votes and knew we could win. There was one final hurdle; the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee was holding the bill hostage. She would only let it out of the committee if we agreed to remove the private workplace.

It was one of those damned if you do damned if you don’t type decisions and the clock was ticking. If I said no the bill would die for the year. We could come back but we would have to start all over. If I said yes our legislation was substantially weakened. I made a command decision and said yes.

Legislation is almost always a matter of compromise and we would still have one of the strongest statewide laws in the nation. I also believed that time was on our side. Once Alaskans became used to breathing smoke-free air they would demand more.

The bill made it out of committee that morning and through the Legislature that afternoon. We were in business, almost.

Legislation is a two-part process, passage and implementation. If the agency charged with implementation doesn’t like the law or has other priorities, your victory can be rather shallow. Fortunately, the Department of Natural Resources had been assigned the responsibility. The staff was on our side but very, very busy.

I offered to save them some work and draft the implementation guidelines for consideration by their legal counsel. Surprisingly, they agreed. It was like turning the fox loose in the henhouse.

Needless to say, the Department came up with very strong and clear guidelines. Some of the weaker sections of the law had even been strengthened.

A few months later I was out in Nome on Lung business and needed lunch. Nome is where the Iditarod sled dog race ends and is about as close to the end of the earth as one can go. I walked into a very rustic restaurant. “Smoking or nonsmoking?” the waiter asked. Several nonsmoking signs were dutifully posted.

Maybe, in the overall scheme of things, the fact that a small restaurant in remote Alaska had a nonsmoking section in 1984 was not of great significance, but it meant a lot to me… and it spoke strongly of the future of the non-smokers’ rights movement

A primary reason for our success had been the strong coalition we had put together. It seemed a shame to let it disband. I suggested we take on another challenge, doubling the tax on cigarettes from $.08 to $.16 and using a portion of the funds to support anti-tobacco and other health education efforts.

The Healthy Alaska Coalition, fresh off of its victory, eagerly agreed. So did the Lung Board. Our challenge this time was that Alaska hadn’t passed any new taxes in years. Quite the opposite, the State gave money back to its residents each year from oil revenues.

As it turned out, passing the tax was relatively easy in comparison to our smoke-free legislation. Again, the Coalition deserved much of the credit. We were even able to add strong Native American backing since their leadership felt the health promotion opportunities provided through the revenues would be valuable.

Another reason for our success on both bills was a lack of opposition from the tobacco industry. Perhaps Alaska was too far off and had too small a population to be of much concern. As far as I know, only one legal firm received a small retainer to represent tobacco industry interests.

Two years later when I was working to push similar tax legislation through the California Legislature, the tobacco lobbyists outnumbered the Legislators, or at least they seemed to. But that’s a story for another blog.

My Alaska experience had reconfirmed my belief in the power of the non-smokers’ rights movement. And, of equal importance, it had introduced the germ of a new idea: using tobacco tax dollars to fund anti-tobacco programs. I was an old dog who had learned new tricks.

I was prepared to participate in creating California’s Proposition 99… but didn’t know it.

2 comments on “An Old Dog Learns New Tricks in Alaska: California’s Proposition 99

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