Tobacco lobbyist skillfully sets up a smoke screen

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 14, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Bruce Bereano is The Great Believer. In what? In anything that pays him to believe.

At last year's General Assembly session in Annapolis, he believed passionately in 57 different clients who paid him $656,780 to sweet-talk legislators. This is a state of belief (and non-stop talking) no other lobbyist in Annapolis even remotely approaches.

Among The Great Believer's clients is the Maryland tobacco lobby, currently under such fire that smoke is coming out of its ears. Because this state has the highest rate of cancer in America, the governor wants an anti-smoking campaign.

But Bruce Bereano says this is anti-Maryland.

Does he say this:

A) Because he doesn't know that nearly 8,000 Marylanders die each year of smoking-related causes, such as lung cancer and heart disease?

Nope.

B) Because he hasn't noticed the frightening rate of smoking among young people?

Maybe.

C) Because the tobacco lobbyists pay him $46,000 a year to utter such idiocy?

Probably.

''You're blinded,'' declares Bereano, ''by the health issue.''

Is that beautiful? What are a few deaths if there's money to be made? In Bereano's view, since tobacco is an important cash crop and promoted by the state, Maryland only undercuts its own economic efforts by trying to stop people -- even kids -- from smoking.

We'll get to the kids in a moment, whether Bereano likes it or not. (He doesn't.) But we now have Gov. William Donald Schaefer, already accused of spending too much money, wanting to spend $3 million over the next three years on an anti-smoking public relations campaign.

Immediately, here is a weapon for Bereano: Hint that the governor's doing it again, that he's wasting money the state can't afford. Schaefer's already unpopular; let's use the cigarette angle to pile on.

Bereano wants us to turn our faces from some other large state expenditures: the cost of people dying slowly, the cost of hospital care. State health secretary Nelson Sabatini told The Sun's C. Fraser Smith that the last few months of life costs the state about $80,000 for each Medicaid patient.

How does Bereano answer such logic?

''You're very biased, and I know well of you,'' he said yesterday. He was talking to me, and I believe he was trying to be intimidating. ''Get yourself to be objective.''

This is known as changing the subject. OK, then, let's change the subject. Let's talk about Bereano the lobbyist, a man who somehow finds the time in each 90-day General Assembly session to adequately represent scores of clients to scores of politicians.

How does he represent them? He makes nice. He hands out small gifts to legislators and sends flowers and candy to key staff members. He gives away tickets to sporting events. He throws receptions and parties, including a ''Sock Hop'' for lawmakers that one year cost more than $14,000.

The lawmakers all say this glad-handing obsequiousness never affects them when it comes time to vote. Such remarks occasion much caustic laughter although, if it really doesn't sway them, then a lot of industries -- including those nice tobacco people -- are blowing a lot of money on Bereano and other lobbyists haunting the State House.

''You,'' Bereano said yesterday, ''have never been objective in your entire career.''

He was challenging me again. OK, you want objectivity, Bruce, here's some: In this state with the nation's highest cancer rate, we have thousands of kids who think they are indestructible and take up the cigarette habit which will lead to many of them dying ahead of schedule.

The new issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association notes, for example, that, since Camel cigarettes started its Joe the Camel character, the proportion of smokers under 18 who chose Camels rose from .5 percent to 32.8 percent.

That share of the market -- an illegal market, to be sure -- meant an income increase for R.J.R. Nabisco, manufacturer of Camels, of $470 million a year, which is notable not only for the (literally) breath-taking amount of money but also for the tobacco industry's modern defense of cigarette advertising.

They're not trying to coax new people into smoking, they say; they're only interested in holding on to traditional smokers.

To all of this, Bereano declared yesterday:

''Everybody's using kids as a bootstrap issue. It's a non-issue. I don't see kids smoking. No, I don't. I'm around a lot of kids, and they're aware of tobacco and smoking and health. So it's a specious argument about them smoking.''

Oh.

''It's just a bunch of zealots proselytizing about cigarettes,'' Bereano said, adding ''It's a lawful activity.''

Even for kids?

''You're very biased,'' said Bereano. ''And you're not immune to the law. So watch yourself.''

''Is that a threat?'' I asked.

''You've been banging at me,'' he said.

Bang at him? Who could possibly want to bang away at Bruce Bereano, a man who merely values dollars over human beings.

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