In North Carolina, the governor may be the top public official, but for the past 200 years tobacco has been king. The state grows half of all the tobacco in the United States, and the original cash crop remains its economic backbone. But beginning next month, North Carolina will be home to one of the nation's toughest youth smoking laws, with a ban on tobacco use in public schools. Most students can't smoke at school anyway, but the law applies to everyone on campus, year-round: parents in the stands at football games, maintenance crews in the school garage, teachers in the parking lot.
Getting the law passed was no simple feat in a state that still depends on people lighting up. North Carolina spends just 4 percent of its annual $426 million of tobacco revenue on smoking prevention (less than half the minimum federal recommendation), and, at 35 cents, maintains one of the country's lowest cigarette taxes. In all, it took six years of local advocacy and the votes of all 115 of the state's school boards. "It wasn't easy," says Mark Ezell, the state's tobacco-free-campus director. "I got called a Nazi a few times." Health advocates who want the state to go further are likely to be called a few more things.