Escape from Alaska… Part I

I was drawn to Alaska by its incredible wilderness. Lisa Murkowski, one of Alaska's Senators, recently introduced legislation to sell off all of America's public lands including national forests, wilderness areas, national historic sites and national seashores (everything except National Parks) to private developer so they can make money off of the lands.

The Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. I was drawn to Alaska by its incredible wilderness. It may not be there for our children. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recently introduced a non-binding budget amendment to the US Senate that would allow states to sell off all of America’s public lands including national forests, wilderness areas, national historic sites, etc. (everything except National Parks) to private interests so they could turn our national heritage into profit.

The story of my involvement with California’s Proposition 99 tobacco tax campaign began on my 43rd birthday when I escaped from Alaska— and escape is the appropriate term.

My three years in Alaska had been a great adventure. I had explored the state’s magnificent wilderness areas and accomplished a fair amount in my role as Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. The organization had a great board and staff. We had taken a sleepy organization and turned it into a powerhouse on air quality and tobacco issues. I had led backpack, bike, and cross-country ski trek fundraisers, substantially increasing the organization’s income, not to mention giving myself an excuse to play in the woods. (As if I needed an excuse.)

But I am not cut out for the Executive Director business— or any other long-term, high stress job, for that matter. I only know one speed: fast forward. In time, the job starts to feel like I am locked in a steel cage, which just happens to be dangling from a frayed rope, hanging over a dark abyss. If that sounds to you like an imaginative description of depression, you are right. It is something of a curse on my mother’s side of the family, or to be more scientific, call it a genetic disposition.

Unfortunately, I am a slow learner. I had been executive director of several environmental and health nonprofits, done my job, and moved on. It seemed like a natural fit; so I persisted. But each time, it was like I was flirting with the dark side of my mind. I had learned I made a better ‘consultant,’ where I created the jobs I would work on. For example, I developed the wilderness trek program as a fundraiser and then became the American Lung Association’s national trek consultant. The consulting work was intense, but it had a definite beginning and a definite end. Afterwards, I would go play.

Alaska had sounded really good, however. And it was. There was all of that great outdoors (over 50% of America’s wilderness area), important issues to address on the environmental and tobacco front, and a relationship in Sacramento that needed a serious time-out. So I had taken the bait when Alaska had called— hook, line and sinker.

"It's time to pack your bags, Curt." (Peggy and I took the photos of Alaska and the Alaska Highway two years ago when we visited the state.)

“It’s time to pack your bags, Curt.” Alaskan Brown Bear. (Peggy and I took the photos of Alaska and the Alaska Highway found on today and next week’s post two years ago when we visited the state.)

By the end of the first year, I was climbing the walls. It was time to leave. Except I had made a commitment to myself, and to the organization that I would stay for three years. I struggled my way through the second year, barely keeping my head above the water. But we accomplished some good things— like forcing Tesoro to clean up the air pollution from its oil refinery, creating one of the first state-wide non-smoking laws in the nation, leading an effort to double the state tobacco tax with money going toward prevention, and bringing automobile inspection and maintenance to Alaska. But I was coming to the end of my tether. It was a short rope.

The stress at the back of my head was palpable. Even now, as I write about the experience, I can feel it gathering. It influenced my decision-making. Instead of coasting and turning more work over to my staff, I jumped feet first into the fire. It wasn’t necessary; my board and staff were good folks. They would have been eager to help. But asking for help assumes a rational mind. Mine wasn’t. I started making mistakes— and I started increasing my nightly consumption of alcohol, from two, to four, to six cans of beer. Alcohol was singing its seductive song.

Had I learned to be laid back like this moose, there never would have been a problem.

Had I learned to be laid back like this moose, there never would have been a problem.

Over Christmas, I took a break by myself and drove down to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. There’s a motel that sits out at the end of the Homer Spit providing panoramic views of Kachemak Bay. I got a room and spent hours staring out at the water and distant mountains. And I made a decision. I would return to Anchorage and give a three-month notice that I was leaving. When the time was up, I would disappear into the woods for several months of backpacking. I would take the wilderness cure.

I spent my last day packing the things I wanted to take: a few books and camping gear. I would leave Alaska like I had arrived, with what I could fit in the back of my pickup. I spent the night at a friend’s home, but she wasn’t there. She had disappeared into the lower 48 states so she wouldn’t see me drive away. I had passed on her offer to get married, stay home, write, and raise kids. Her two dogs and cat kept me company.

The views along the highway between anchorage and the lower 48 states are incredible— not that I paid much attention is my mad dash for the border.

The views along the highway between Anchorage and the lower 48 states are incredible— not that I paid much attention in my mad dash for the border. This is the Matanuska Glacier.

These mountains were near the Matanuska Glacier, easy driving distance from Anchorage.

These mountains were near the Matanuska Glacier, easy driving distance from Anchorage. 30 minutes from my house, I could be hiking in similar terrain.

Another view of the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains that I would have passed.

Another view of the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains shown in the top photo.

I flew down the Alaska Highway the next morning, exhausting myself, searching for green grass and flowers. I almost made the Canadian border the first night. Too tired to move on, I pulled into a closed truck inspection point and crawled into the back of my pickup.

Once I had arranged my sleeping bag on top of my few possessions, I broke out some liquid refreshment to scare off the banshees that were nipping at my heels. My truck was packed with more guilt than goods, a lot more. Some old friends from California— Tom Lovering, Jean Snuggs and a new friend of Tom’s, an irrepressible minister by the name of Jeanie Shaw, had put together a South of the Border Care Package to ease my way toward California. It consisted of several ripe avocados, salsa, chips and a gallon of pre-made margaritas, heavy on the tequila. I held a little party with my staff before leaving. We did serious damage to the guacamole but hardly touched the margaritas.

I knocked off a water-sized glass of the latter. It put me well on the way to oblivion but it wasn’t enough to let me sleep through the horrendous racket of someone trying to break into my camper shell. I sat up with a start and yelled, banging my head against the top. A flashlight with enough candlepower to light up Las Vegas was shining directly into my eyes.

The Troopers flash light had about the same intensity as the sun on this lake that is located close to the Alaska-Canada Border.

The flashlight had about the same intensity as the sun on this lake that is located close to the Alaska-Canada Border.

“You in the truck, what are you doing here?” It was the voice of Authority. An Alaskan State Trooper had been banging on my camper shell with his baton. I thought it was quite obvious what I was doing but wisely decided to refrain from the obscene comment that was perched on the tip of my tongue. I chose a mildly sarcastic response.

“Uh, sleeping?” I hazarded a guess.

“You are not supposed to sleep here,” the disembodied voice behind the flashlight responded. “Why didn’t you go to a motel?” I was obviously a suspicious character, having chosen not to support the Alaskan economy. I was also being interrogated with the bright light of the law shining in my eyes. It was time to think fast.

“I fell asleep behind the wheel,” I exaggerated slightly. “I was afraid I might do serious damage to myself or someone else on the highway.”

That put a serious crimp in his nightstick. I could tell he was pondering my answer by the slowness of his response. He was torn between his job to roust out suspected vagrants and his responsibility to save lives. His good sense won.

“Go back to sleep,” the voice said. It was a lot easier for him to say than it was for me to do.

NEXT FRIDAY’s ESSAY: I reject an offer to run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, decide what I should do with a gallon bag of pot I was given as a going away present, and finish my journey to Sacramento— where I am immediately asked to put together a statewide campaign to increase California’s tobacco tax. Instead, I go backpacking.

How 25 Cents Saved One Million Lives and 135 Billion Dollars in Health Care Costs: Introduction

In 1989 the tobacco industry would mount an "an unprecedented campaign," according to the Tobacco Institute, to defeat California's Proposition 99, an initiative effort to increase the tax on cigarettes by $.25 and devote a substantial portion of the funds to discouraging tobacco use.  The industry recognized that passage of the initiative would pose one of the greatest threats to tobacco use it had ever encountered.

In 1989 the tobacco industry would mount an “unprecedented campaign,” according to the Tobacco Institute, to defeat California’s Proposition 99, an initiative effort to increase the tax on cigarettes by $.25 and devote a substantial portion of the funds to discouraging tobacco use. The industry recognized that passage of the initiative would pose one of the greatest threats to tobacco use it had ever encountered.

Irritating people with power is an unfortunate talent of mine. I’ve burned enough bridges in my life to cross the Mississippi, Amazon, Congo and Nile Rivers combined— at flood stage. In the fall of 1986, I added Jay Michaels to the list of people annoyed with me. Jay was the Executive Director of the California Medical Society (CMA), one of the most powerful organizations in California, which made Jay one of the most powerful people in California. He and I were working together on an effort to increase the state sales tax on tobacco. But ‘working together’ was a misnomer. Jay didn’t like my allies, he didn’t like me, and he didn’t like how I proposed we spend the revenues.

One day I had a phone call from two of his staff members, wanting to take me to lunch.

“OK,” I had responded, more than a little curious— make that massively curious. I also admit I was amused about going to lunch on Jay’s dollar. They suggested we meet somewhere Jay was unlikely to frequent.

“First, Curt,” they explained when we sat down, “understand that we aren’t here. This lunch is not taking place. We’d be fired if Jay knew we were meeting with you.” CMA, apparently, wasn’t paying for the lunch.

Looking back, I think it took a great deal of courage for the two of them to do what they did. They shared several things with me. Although they had reservations about the environmental programs I was supporting, they were totally behind my primary objective for the use of the tax funds, which was the prevention and control of tobacco use. They told me they would be as supportive as they could be, given the circumstances. Just as we were wrapping up, they gave me a warning. I suspect it was their primary reason for meeting with me.

“Jay was talking about you at a staff meeting last week and he smashed the pencil he was holding into the conference table. He hit the table so hard the pencil shattered.”

“He can destroy your career, Curt,” they told me in all seriousness. I laughed; I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t about the pencil, which was scary. It was about the career. I had none to destroy. Given the worst-case scenario, I would scoot off into the woods. It is what I do to celebrate, but it is also what I do to lick my wounds. In fact, any excuse for taking off into the wilderness works for me.

A few months earlier I had returned from a major wound-licking session of backpacking alone for six months in the wildest places I could find in the western United States. Part of my therapy afterwards was taking on the tobacco tax, doing penance so to speak. The story of how I became involved, the campaign, and the end results of the effort will be the subject of my Friday essays for the next several weeks. Some of the tales I have blogged about before, others, such as the confrontation with Jay, I am writing about for the first time.

So join me next Friday when, suffering from depression, I left my job as Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association and fled down the Alaska Highway toward an effort that would eventually become one of the largest, most successful prevention programs in history. I’ll even take you backpacking.

The Earth Is 6000 Years Old… Or So My father Told Me

My father, Herb Mekemson. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

My father. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.

“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.

“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.

I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.

“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.

Pop, as in "don't you even think of taking my pipe away from me. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

Pop, as in, “Don’t you dare think of taking my pipe away from me.” (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.

When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.

“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.

Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.

“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.

My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.

Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.

A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.

The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.

“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”

Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.

“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.

“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.

After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.

“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.

“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”

He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.

While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.

“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”

The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.

“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.

“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.

“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”

“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.

I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.

I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.

The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.

Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.

Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.

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.