Tobacco Lobby's Greatest Fear

February 27, 1993

The debate over cigarette smoking in public places has shifted from a quarrel over individual rights to a sharper focus on the effects of secondhand smoke on health and children. It is a shift that puts the tobacco industry on a slippery slope the industry desperately wanted to avoid.

Cigarette-makers wanted the dispute to center on whether government should intrude in the private habits of citizens. The tobacco lobby waved the Stars and Stripes and painted itself as a freedom fighter for the tar and nicotine set. (No taxation without asphyxiation?)

But since the Environmental Protection Agency released a major report last month that classified second-hand smoke as a prime carcinogen, arguments against smoking as a health risk have picked up steam. The report provided impetus for government agencies and businesses to act more aggressively in restricting or banning smoking.

McDonald's, which is concerned about second-hand smoke in light of the chain's allure to children, announced a test ban in 40 of its restaurants, including two in Hagerstown. This sent shock waves because smokers have nursed a coffee and a cig under the golden arches for years.

In Maryland, the state association of restaurateurs reversed field to back a statewide ban of smoking in all public places. It took a look at smoking restrictions being proposed in Howard and Anne Arundel counties and under discussion in Baltimore City and decided surrender was the better part of valor rather than contend with different laws in 24 subdivisions. Institutions with powerful symbolism, from the White House to Oriole Park, have announced recent no-smoking policies.

On the evolutionary chain of political debate, the smoking issue used to be a cousin of the former fight to require motorcyclists to wear helmets in Maryland -- the individual maintained a right to do himself harm.

But now smoking is becoming more closely related to controversies over sex harassment and lead paint dangers: Non-smokers, who for years sat in clouded quarters without a whimper, are no longer willing to take it. And scientific clout, coupled with the emotional weight of children's well-being, has turned this issue into something the tobacco lobby hoped it would never become.

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