Schaefer seeks cigarette-tax rise Proposal adds to smoking battle in state legislature.

February 06, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron John W. Frece, Kevin Thomas and Glenn Small to this story.

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer today repeated his call for a 25-cent-per-pack increase in the tax on cigarettes, saying it is crucial to improving the health of Marylanders.

"Legislators know it's right," Mr. Schaefer said of his proposal, which could raise an estimated $105 million.

The plan is part of the governor's aggressive anti-smoking campaign to erase Maryland's status as the No. 1 cancer state in the nation.

Also, Mr. Schaefer said he would veto a comprehensive smokers' rights bill pushed by lobbyists for the tobacco industry.

Mr. Schaefer called the measure "a special interest bill."

With the bill, the tobacco industry opened the Maryland front of its national battle against local smoking restrictions.

Sponsored at the industry's request by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the bill would take away local governments' authority to enact future smoking regulations and give it to the legislature.

It also would prohibit employers from discriminating against people who smoke off the job and would require most businesses to establish a smoking policy.

As a concession to anti-smoking forces, the bill would make it illegal for anyone under 18 to possess tobacco products.

"It's a reasonable bill that puts consistency into state policy," said Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist for the Smokeless Tobacco Council.

"I defy anybody to say otherwise."

The effort is part of the tobacco industry's national strategy to move the fight over smoking away from city and county governments -- where the industry has lost many battles -- and into the 50 state legislatures, where the industry is well-represented.

In fact, the tobacco industry has become a heavy player in state politics across the country.

In California, for example, it contributed more than $7.3 million to state legislative candidates between 1986 and 1990.

Although it has been less active in Maryland politics, the industry has hired Mr. McCoy and two of the other top-10-earning lobbyists in the state.

The industry's latest recruit is former state Sen. Catherine I. Riley, who has close political ties to the senate president.

Ms. Riley was hired by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris after another ex-senator, Frank J. Komenda, left private lobbying to do the same kind of work for the University of Maryland system.

Ms. Riley quickly scored a coup by helping recruit the influential Senate president.

"If you're in the health business, or the health insurance business, I'd think you'd probably not think a whole lot of this bill," said Ms. Riley, who was regarded as an expert on health issues when she chaired the Senate Finance Committee.

Anti-smoking forces were immediately upset to discover that Ms. Riley was in the Senate lounge -- usually off-limits to lobbyists -- the same night the smoking bill was introduced.

Mr. Miller said later that as a former senator, Ms. Riley was always welcome in the lounge or on the Senate floor as long as she refrained from lobbying there.

While the tobacco lobby battles annually with doctors' groups and health advocates seeking smoking limits, it changed its strategy this year to work with opponents and try to craft a "compromise" measure.

Mr. McCoy said the industry told anti-smoking advocates, "What's happening here is we're all spending a lot of money getting nowhere."

But the discussions broke up several weeks ago, and both sides resumed their normal posture -- at each other's throats.

For example, this is what Gerard E. Evans, a state medical society lobbyist, had to say of his opponents:

"It's like going to bat for the napalm manufacturers."

Local officials across Maryland complained that the bill would take away their authority, a logical move for the industry, which has had little luck fighting at the local level.

"The tobacco industry will stop at nothing to continue to promote this deadly habit," said C. Vernon Gray, a member of the Howard County Council, which has passed some of the strictest smoking restrictions in the state.

Despite the opposition and the veto threat, the tobacco industry will persevere, Mr. McCoy said.

Common ground will be hard to find in smoking issues, Mr. McCoy said, because anti-smoking forces won't compromise.

"If the industry said smoking is no good and we should cut off the thumbs of anybody that smokes, they'd say, 'That's no good. That's the industry position.' "

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