Up in smoke: the demise of a cigarette bill Governor's proposal defeated in 'pretty wild' scenario

April 18, 1993|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Staff Writer

All the governor wanted to do was crack down on stores that sell cigarettes to children.

Hardly a big deal. Even cigarette manufacturers say they don't want kids to smoke.

But by last Monday, the final day of the 1993 legislative session, the crackdown was dead -- a casualty of a larger war between the tobacco industry and local governments across the country.

Supporters of the anti-smoking bill say the tobacco lobby doomed their efforts by amending the bill to pieces and confusing lawmakers about what it would do.

At one point, supporters and opponents of the crackdown were both voting against the bill in the House of Delegates. "It was pretty wild," said David S. Iannucci, the governor's top lobbyist.

Don't blame me, replied Bruce C. Bereano, the Tobacco Institute's man in Maryland. "I didn't try to kill the bill," he declared.

Whomever you believe, the story of House Bill 458 should be required reading for would-be lobbyists and legislators.

The crackdown grew out of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's campaign against cancer, a disease that has taken a disproportionately high toll on Marylanders.

Studies show that most adult smokers pick up the habit as teens. Most teens buy their cigarettes at stores, even though it's illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under 18.

The governor wanted to raise the maximum fine for selling cigarettes to kids from $100 to $1,000, arguing that it would give storekeepers more incentive to check the identification of youthful customers.

His six-page bill also said that local governments could adopt stricter laws if they wished.

That sentence sent the tobacco lobby into hyperdrive and doomed the bill. Enter Mr. Bereano, the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis and longtime campaign fund-raiser for Maryland lawmakers.

Mr. Bereano persuaded the House Judiciary Committee, which is run by lawyers such as himself, to take out the sentence about local governments because it would hurt his ability to win some lawsuits he has filed.

Those suits seek to overturn tough local laws in Takoma Park, Bowie and Montgomery County that restrict the sales of cigarettes from vending machines.

The committee did as Mr. Bereano asked because it has a policy against passing laws that affect pending cases, said Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., R-Baltimore County.

Besides, he said, "a lot of us thought that was not a key ingredient" to the crackdown.

The ability of local governments to restrict smoking and cigarette sales is a big deal to the tobacco industry. It once fought most of those battles in Congress and state legislatures, where it maintains a strong presence and successful record.

In recent years, however, the anti-smoking movement has focused on local laws, forcing the tobacco industry to engage in expensive guerrilla warfare in cities, counties and towns where local activists may have the upper hand.

Anti-smoking activists feared that if Mr. Bereano succeeded in getting the local language cut out, he could then argue in court that lawmakers really didn't want such places as Bowie, Takoma Park and Montgomery to adopt stronger laws.

"It was a strange dynamic in that the bill came under attack by those who supported the tobacco industry or who identified with the small businesses that would be harmed by higher penalties, and also by the other side -- those who have strong sentiments against smoking and felt the bill had been watered down by the Judiciary Committee," Mr. Iannucci said.

With the anti-smoking faction in disarray, the House killed the bill March 26, but quickly agreed to reconsider the matter.

Mr. Bereano apparently saw an opportunity to torpedo the bill outright. He stopped supporting the measure and began fighting it.

A few days later, the bill passed by the narrowest possible margin. The anti-smoking contingent supported the measure, on the theory that it would be better to keep the bill alive and $H strengthen it later.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bereano switched sides again. He made sure the House Judiciary Committee would not agree to strengthen the bill. Then he tried to sell the weakened House version to the Senate.

The Senate wasn't buying it. The senators ultimately restored the sentence allowing tougher local laws.

The governor had threatened to veto his own bill if they didn't.

But it was too late.

Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's, the new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, refused to back off the House position.

And the governor's aides couldn't persuade Mr. Vallario's boss, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., to help them out. "The speaker was very sincerely of the opinion that Mom and Pa stores might be excessively harmed by the excessive penalties," Mr. Iannucci said.

L So the bill died quietly when the session ended at midnight.

Mr. Bereano is celebrating by going on a diet. He said he wants to lose the weight he gained during the session because he was fretting about the tobacco bill.

"I put on a number of pounds, just eating out of anxiety and worry," he said.

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