News+Opinion » Will Moredock

Dan Carrigan takes a bow, moves on to new challenges

Exit Interview

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When Dan Carrigan leaves South Carolina for New York City this week, he will leave a much cleaner and saner state than he found when he came here 18 years ago. He will leave new attitudes toward tobacco use and personal responsibility. And he will leave a lot of people standing on sidewalks and in alleys to get their nicotine fix.

More than any other person, it is Carrigan who was responsible for smoke-free ordinances in Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, Sullivan's Island, Isle of Palms, Edisto Beach, and 25 other municipalities and counties. More than 1.3 million South Carolinians can now work, dine, shop, and be entertained in smoke-free environments, thanks to Carrigan's vision and tenacity.

As head of Smoke-Free Action Network, Carrigan has organized clean-air activists in dozens of towns and cities and in the Statehouse in Columbia.

Carrigan is pleased with the progress that has been made to clear the air in S.C., but he is aware that powerful interests are eager to turn back the tide and that a corrupt General Assembly is all too happy to collude with them. Tobacco lobbyists are working night and day to block any increase in the cigarette tax and to pass a "comprehensive" statewide smoking law. Of course, this tobacco-sponsored statewide law would preempt all local ordinances and essentially throw out smoking restrictions in bars, restaurants, and other places, Carrigan told me last week.

It's a tactic they have used effectively in other states to get local smoke-free laws overturned. It involves policies such as creating smoking and non-smoking rooms in restaurants with swinging doors between. It is a scientifically bogus maneuver that has been compared to creating a "no-peeing" zone in a swimming pool.

At seven cents a pack, S.C. has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation, and has not raised that tax since 1978. This state spends less than any other on smoking awareness and cessation programs. In 2009, the amount was exactly zero!

At the same time, Carrigan said, polls show that South Carolinians overwhelmingly support smoke-free workplaces. There are no cigarette factories in S.C., and the amount of tobacco grown in this state is down by 50 percent over the last 15 years as cigarette manufacturers buy more of their tobacco abroad. Yet, as surely as our General Assembly will find some way to embarrass itself before this session is out, it will also debate fiercely some tobacco industry-sponsored bill to strike down local smoke-free ordinances.

So what is driving this perennial Statehouse debate? One word, Carrigan said: money, the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year the tobacco industry pours into the coffers of state legislators and pays to its lobbyists.

This is not a debate over protecting the state economy, as many legislators claim. The only economy they are protecting is their own.

The good news is that the tobacco lobby has been thwarted — until now. The bad news is that the man who has won so many battles for clean air in S.C. is moving on. For the last four years Carrigan's work has been funded by grants from the Hollings Cancer Center and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Now the money is gone and Carrigan is headed to New York in search of other opportunities.

The challenge now is to raise money to have clean-air guardians watch the Statehouse, Carrigan said. Big Tobacco has unlimited funds to pay legislators and lobbyists for as long as it takes to get our state's smoke-free ordinances thrown out. Amateurs and volunteers cannot compete with these well-financed professionals. People who want clean air must have their own lobbyists if they are to protect the gains they have made.

"I don't think people realize how easily we could lose our smoke-free laws," Carrigan said. "People should understand that this is not a battle over individual rights. There is no constitutional right to smoke. Smokers are not a protected class of citizens."

With Dan Carrigan riding into the sunset, the battle is now joined by the S.C. African-American Tobacco Control Network and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League. But they cannot do the work alone. It takes money to monitor the mountebanks in the Statehouse, to protect and expand our local clean air ordinances and keep the tobacco lobbyists at bay. If you like breathing clean air, consider making your tax deductible donation to SCCleanAir.org.

"I'm really proud of the work I've done here," Carrigan said. "I want to see South Carolina move off the bottom in health statistics."

We've won some great victories in the battle for clean air. Now if we can just get a grant to quiet those damned motorcycles!

For more on the battle for clean air in S.C., go to charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.

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