March 28, 2005 - Henry and Alice loved country-line dancing and were doing the two-step on the floor of the Longbranch in Raleigh, celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary, when suddenly Henry stiffened and fell backwards to the floor. It was sudden death!
Henry was a fortunate man that night. It just so happened that a nurse and a doctor were in the house. According to a November 25, 1994, front-page article in Raleigh, NC, newspaper, The News and Observer, Henry's "heart stayed down even after 20 minutes of CPR and several jolts from a defibrillator, a device that sends powerful electrical charges to the heart." Despite the fact most sudden death victims don't survive, Henry was not only revived but suffered no brain damage as a result of the episode.
When doctors assessed his case at WakeMed, they discovered Henry had suffered a heart attack in 1990 and desperately needed double-bypass surgery, which was performed right away. Doctors said the most significant factor for Henry's diseased heart was something he had been doing since the ninth grade -- smoking.
"After all I've been through, I still struggle with smoking," says Henry today. "I doubt I would quit smoking if the North Carolina General Assembly raised the cigarette tax by 75 cents, but then again I just might."
For some time now, lawmakers have been debating the need for a higher cigarette tax in North Carolina. The state's tax is currently a nickel a pack, 79 cents below the national average. The governor and Democrats say the tax is needed as a new revenue stream for various state needs. Republicans say no tax hike is warranted, that North Carolina has a spending problem and needs to tighten its budget.
Yet the most critical matter in the debate still seems to elude most elected officials: the cigarette tax is supposed to be about public health!
According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one out of every four adults in North Carolina is a smoker, and more than 11,400 adults in North Carolina die prematurely every year because of smoking. Nearly half of the Tar Heel youngsters who try smoking will become regular smokers. It's estimated that more than 207,500 kids alive today in North Carolina will ultimately die prematurely from smoking.
Various levels of higher cigarette taxes have been put forward, but a 75-cent increase would provide the maximum health benefit. The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids notes that a 75-cent hike would prevent nearly 4,000 youth from ever starting to smoke each year. It would stop 101,000 kids alive today from smoking and save the lives of at least 32,000 from dying of smoking. It would also help 70,000 adults quit and save the lives of over 15,000 from dying of the habit.
Think of the lives that would be saved! What an opportunity for lawmakers to touch their constituents in a profoundly significant manner. The cigarette tax is really about the public's health. What could possibly be more important?
Henry represents literally hundreds of thousands in the Tar Heel State who start smoking young and are destined for an early death because of tobacco-related illnesses. Moreover, Henry and his kind ought to be the focus of this debate, not new revenue streams, big government or "no tax hike" pledges. No doubt, this is why faith leaders across the state are supporting a cigarette tax that would provide the best incentive to help people turn away from smoking.
Would that lawmakers raise the cigarette tax by 75 cents and significantly help people like Henry! I would be eternally grateful if they did. For you see, Henry is my father, Henry Heber Creech, Jr.
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. This commentary first appeared in The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC) on March 23, 2005.