The decade-long battle to persuade the Legislature to raise South Carolina's cigarette tax was a grass-roots movement that on Thursday finally paid off.
On July 1, the state levy on a pack of cigarettes rises to 57 cents, and catapults the state to 42nd place in taxing cigarettes, from 51st place.
In a state where progress can grind stubbornly slow, proponents of the increase rejoiced.
"The South Carolina Tobacco Collaborative has been waiting and working for this day for 10 years," said Kelly Davis, government relations director for the American Cancer Society.
"Today, out legislators delivered a historic victory."
In many ways, the collaborative - an amalgam of some of the nation's top health advocacy agencies, including the Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and American Lung Association - is a blueprint of the long road that led Thursday to overwhelming passage of the tax increase.
"A 50 cents increase in our state's cigarette tax means that more than 23,000 kids under the age of 18 in South Carolina will never become smokers," Davis said.
"That means those kids will grow up to be adults who never smoke - parents who never smoke, grandparents who never smoke," Davis said.
That smoke-free concept brought up memories for Nancy Cheney, who got involved in the campaign to raise the cigarette tax when she moved to South Carolina in 1999.
"One of my favorite stories is one Sen. Verne Smith used to tell," Cheney said in the State House lobby after Thursday's vote.
"He was saying a prayer with his grandson, and his grandson would pray that his grandfather would quit smoking so he wouldn't die."
Smith, who served 34 years in the Senate, would say that is what led him to quit smoking, Cheney said.
The venerable Greenville Republican, who resigned his Senate seat in 2006 after being out sick all the previous year, died later in 2006 at age 81.
Once the cigarette tax passed, Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, paid Smith a tribute.
"I firmly believe if it were not Sen. Smith, we wouldn't be here today," Alexander said. "He got this ball to rolling, and though he wasn't here to see this, he is looking down on us, happy."
'THEY LAUGHED AT US'
In 1999, when she started on the drive to raise the tax by 50 cents, Cheney said the Cancer Society couldn't get a single lawmaker to sponsor a cigarette tax bill.
"They laughed at us," Cheney recalled. "We are a tobacco-growing state." Lawmakers didn't want to raise taxes, she said.
In 2002, when Rep. Anton Gunn, D-Richland, was with S.C. Fairshare, he said he recalled holding a rally for a cigarette tax increase on the State House grounds.
"All we were asking was 22 cents," said Gunn. "This was a long time coming."
Gunn said a cadre of legislators who stymied an increase for years after signing a pledge not to raise taxes "knew it was the right thing to do." But, Gunn said, they resisted.
Possibly nobody at the State House was happier about passage of the cigarette tax increase than Sue Berkowitz, director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia, where she advocates for the poor at the Legislature daily.
"Health care, health care, Medicaid, Medicaid, poor people, poor people," Berkowitz said, pressing home the point of the cigarette tax increase.
Berkowitz said that without the cigarette tax increase, Medicaid services in the state could not survive, and that amounts to no health care for the poor.
Of the estimated $135 million the tax will raise, $125 million will be used on state-run health care. Lawmakers can use the money to get $3 from the federal government for every $1 S.C. spends on health care.
Berkowitz, whose advocacy can sometimes be at odds with a Republican-controlled Legislature, said it took lawmakers many years to get behind what residents already knew.
Alexander, who calmly put down concerns raised on the Senate floor, agreed.
"In South Carolina, it can take a long time, but if it's right, it will happen," Alexander said.
Cheney said there also have been many unsung heroes in the fight to raise the cigarette tax, including Rep. Rex Rice, R-Greenville, who pushed unsuccessfully to get the tax raised under former House Speaker David Wilkins.
"He stepped up because he saw a need," Cheney said, in preventing the bad health effects caused by smoking. "We thank him; we never forget," she said.
Then there was the tobacco farmer in Latta, Johnny Shelley, whom Cheney said came out to support the cause for a higher tax on cigarettes. "He didn't want kids to start smoking, because he realized that with the chemicals that are added, his tobacco became poisonous after it left the field."
While health advocates and tobacco farmers came to see eye-to-eye on the hazards of smoking, Cheney said U.S. surgeon general reports, a coalition of Southern tobacco-growing states under the Southern Neighbors Project, the AARP, S.C. Fairshare, the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce and others also rallied around the issue.
In a fight that played out over many years, concerning an issue as controversial as tobacco has been, Cheney said there have been some upsetting moments.
One of those major moments came two years ago when the House and Senate passed a cigarette tax increase and Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed the bill, much like this year.
"Then within 45 minutes of the veto, the House failed to override it," Cheney said, clutching her chest.
Not this time.