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Chipping Away at Tobacco Traditions in Tobacco Country: Tobacco Industry Political Influence and Tobacco Policy Making in North Carolina 1969-2011


North Carolina, the top U.S. tobacco producing state and home to RJ Reynolds and Lorillard tobacco companies, has a historic, economic, and social legacy tied to tobacco, creating particular resistance to tobacco control efforts. The tobacco manufacturers historically relied on tobacco grower organizations, which had more influence on political and public opinion than tobacco manufacturers, to act on their behalf to shape policy in North Carolina. To influence policymakers, between 1996 and 2008, the tobacco industry contributed nearly $1.3 million to North Carolina political parties and individual candidates for state-level office, focusing contributions around pivotal elections, with candidates for governor and key legislative leadership being the largest recipients. There is a statistically significant relationship between the amount of tobacco industry campaign contributions a legislator received and his or her support for pro-tobacco policies. In 1969, North Carolina became the last state in the nation to enact an excise tax on tobacco, a modest 2 cents. Due to the passage of the 1969 excise tax, the Tobacco Institute increased its lobbying presence in 1972. As early as the late 1960s, the tobacco manufacturers anticipated that if North Carolina increased their tobacco excise tax other states would follow. They devoted considerable resources to defeating tobacco excise tax increase proposals, and as a result there were only small incremental increases in the tax during the 1990’s and 2000’s, still placing North Carolina 45th for tobacco excise taxes in 2011 (at $0.45 per pack). North Carolina was one of a few states, and the only tobacco growing state, that participated in both the National Cancer Institute COMMIT (1986-1995) and ASSIST (1991-1998) studies. ASSIST allowed the state to create a lasting tobacco control infrastructure by setting up local tobacco control coalitions in the majority of key media markets throughout the state. The resulting state tobacco control infrastructure remained active even after the studies ended and was still active in 2011. Beginning in the late 1980s, local jurisdictions began adopting policies to restrict smoking in publicly owned government buildings. By 1993, 15 counties and 22 cities had some kind of policy to restrict public smoking including in restaurants throughout North Carolina. In response to health advocates’ growing success in passing local clean indoor air ordinances and board of health regulations, in 1993 the tobacco industry secured passage of a weak, preemptive state “dirty air” law which only allowed local jurisdictions to pass smoking restrictions for 90 days. (Eighty-nine more communities passed ordinances during his 90 day window.) The tobacco industry sued and invalidated the local county board of health regulations, prompting the tobacco control advocates to implement a strategy to “chip away” at resistance to tobacco control policies, beginning with youth access laws. In 1997 advocates began working to implement voluntary tobacco free school campus policies, an important step in changing social norms around tobacco use, with support in 2000 from Gov. James Hunt (D). By 2007, 75 percent of the school districts were voluntarily tobacco free when the state legislature enacted legislation requiring all school districts to be 100% tobacco free by August 1, 2008. North Carolina attorney general Michael Easley (D) did not sue the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s, but was one of the negotiators of the Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. He filed a pro-forma suit in 1998 so North Carolina could benefit from the cash payouts in the MSA, amounting to $4.6 billion over the first 25 years of the MSA for North Carolina. In 1999, the Legislature allocated 75% of North Carolina’s MSA money to diversify the state’s tobacco dependent economy and 25% to health related programs, of which a small portion was spent on youth-oriented tobacco-related projects beginning in 2002. In 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch, along with tobacco control advocates, created the Vision 2010 strategic plan for the tobacco control part of the MSA money, including youth prevention programs and tobacco free school campuses, adding resources and funding for programming. The federal tobacco quota buyout in 2004 exacerbated the rift between the tobacco growers and manufacturers, resulting in reduced tobacco farmers’ opposition to tobacco control policies. Tobacco control advocates successfully used this lack of opposition to begin a push for stronger tobacco control laws. Despite tobacco manufacturers’ opposition, between 2003 and 2009 state tobacco control advocates built strong coalitions including nontraditional partners such as the hospitality industry, cultivated relationships with key legislators, and generated grassroots support resulting in 100% tobacco free schools, prisons and hospitals, and 100% smokefree government buildings, long-term care facilities, restaurants, and bars, effectively “chipping away” at preemption. In 2009 North Carolina became the first tobacco growing state to implement a statewide 100% smokefree restaurant and bar law. The 2009 law also partially repealed preemption, giving local governments the authority to enact more stringent restrictions on outdoor public property. Private workplaces remained preempted. Between 2003 and 2009, it was not uncommon for a state legislator to receive campaign contributions from the tobacco industry and then vote in favor for tobacco control policies, suggesting declining tobacco industry influence among policymakers. Tobacco control gains in North Carolina were incremental and required continue persistence and coordinated collaboration among tobacco control advocates, which allowed meaningful policies to be implemented. Tobacco control advocates should continue to work to strengthen state tobacco control laws including 100% smokefree workplaces, repealing preemption of all smokefree laws, and securing higher excise taxes. Advocates should continue to leverage the existing divergence between the interests of tobacco manufacturers and growers by promoting alternative crop production and uses for tobacco, and coalition building to further strengthen the states tobacco control policies. -

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