Governor Tom Vilsack today invoked the deaths of his father, mother, sister and former chief-of-staff to recast his argument for raising the state’s cigarette tax.
Doctor Stephen Gleason, Vilsack’s former chief-of-staff, committed suicide Saturday after struggling with an addiction to prescription drugs. “My mother died of lung cancer and brain cancer. My father passed away from a series of strokes and heart attacks and my sister required a heart trasplant that she ultimately rejected. Every single member of my family died as a result of complications from a smoking habit,” Vilsack said to open his morning news conference. “The reality is that addiction is a very difficult and troublesome and this weekend in this office we got yet another painful reminder of that.”
Gleason, who had been director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, worked as Vilsack’s chief of staff for two years before leaving in 2004 because of health problems. Vilsack has kept in “occassional” contact with Gleason by phone and email, and when the two saw one another face-to-face at a fundraising event a couple of weeks ago, Vilsack said he found Gleason to look “physically a lot better” and be optimistic about the future.
“Steve Gleason was a good man, but he had his challenges and his addictions which he had difficulties coping with,” Vilsack said. “The legislature has before it a tobacco tax increase which many look at in the context of the politics of the day and some look at in terms of revenues that can do good. For me, it’s about trying to save lives.”
Vilsack said research shows raising the tax will make cigarettes so expensive many kids won’t start smoking, and smoking, he contends, is a precursor to other drugs and addictions. “If that’s true, and I believe it is, lives could be saved with this action (of raising the cigarette tax),” Vilsack said. “It seems to me that that’s the most compelling reason why we ought to be talking about this, especially in light of all that’s happened recently.”
Vilsack made those comments without notes. When he opened the floor to reporters’ questions, Vilsack choked back emotion as he continued to talk about Gleason and about his mother. Vilsack said she attempted suicide “a couple of times” because of her addiction to alcohol. “It’s hard when a friend,” Vilsack said, pausing to compose himself. “When you can’t help, you know. Again, when you’re a kid going through this — I remember just trying so desperately to help my mother and the reality is you can’t help. Ultimately, it’s a decision that’s made by the individual.”
Vilsack credited his mother with making the heroic decision to quit drinking and turn her life around. Vilsack called Gleason a man of “extraordinary passion” who “literally spent himself” caring for others. Gleason leaves behind a wife and seven children, and Vilsack said it’s the family left behind he’s focused on now. “My hope is that those of us who cared about Steve care equally about Lisa and the kids and are able to help in some way,” Vilsack said. Vilsack said the tragedy of Gleason’s suicide makes him stop, think and redouble his efforts in certain areas, like today’s renewed call for raising the cigarette tax.
Gleason was a top administrator at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines before leaving to work in state government. Gleason also served on the national health care advisory board which drafted a universal health care plan President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, tried unsuccessfully to advance in the early 1990s.