Tobacco lobbyist takes the flak and keeps coming back

September 27, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer Staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

People hiss when he stands up to testify against smoking bans, calling him a "merchant of death." He gets hate mail, nasty phone calls and harsh words from editorial writers. But Bruce Bereano embraces such scorn.

"I get paid to be abused," says Mr. Bereano, who has made tobacco interests the foundation stone of his highly successful lobbying practice in Annapolis.

Since 1981, when The Tobacco Institute became his first blue-ribbon client, Mr. Bereano has pulled off a succession of dramatic victories for smokers, cigarette vending machine suppliers and tobacco product wholesalers.

Though he failed recently to defeat increases in taxes on cigarettes, he has prevailed time after time against efforts to ban the sale or use of tobacco products. He is tobacco's most recognizable advocate in Maryland -- in the General Assembly, in county councils and in the courts. He once managed to have the state budget altered to remove money for an anti-tobacco advertising campaign.

Ten days ago, he won another major victory. The state's Court of Appeals threw out two local laws banning the placement of cigarette vending machines in places easily accessible to children. Mr. Bereano was not a bit deterred in his defense by the fact that the laws were designed to reduce smoking by children.

He sees his clients as unfairly maligned by an increasingly hostile public. "Smoking has been blamed for everything except the existence of Saddam Hussein," he says.

Mr. Bereano's effectiveness can be measured by his paycheck -- he collects nearly $1 million in lobbying fees each year, about $100,000 of which comes from tobacco manufacturers and related enterprises. He is Maryland's highest-paid lobbyist, representing about 60 clients in such industries as horse racing, insurance, cellular phones and nursing homes.

There's a downside, though, to such visible success. Mr. Bereano's practice of contributing money to legislators' election campaigns is being examined by a federal grand jury, law enforcement and legislative sources say. The probe grew from an inquiry into the state's $64 million acquisition of lottery computers made by GTECH, a Rhode Island concern represented by Mr. Bereano.

Investigators have turned now to Mr. Bereano's fund raising -- whether he made contributions to politicians beyond the limits permitted under Maryland law, according to the sources. Some of Mr. Bereano's staff members have testified before the grand jury, the sources say.

In the midst of this unpleasant attention, Mr. Bereano has told friends and associates he is fearful of being indicted. He declines to comment publicly on the reports.

But his lobbying goes on. Mr. Bereano, in an interview about his work for tobacco interests, says his business is unaffected by the investigation. He's even confident of gaining new accounts for the 1994 legislative session.

What he offers his clients is tireless monitoring of legislative committees and regulatory bodies. And he delights in flamboyant comments.

He describes the anti-smoking forces as overcome with "emotionalism." He calls them "ignorant," "arrogant" and "health police."

Cigarettes, he says, are "as legal as a jar of mayonnaise." If they are harmful, so what?

"Some people have high cholesterol," Mr. Bereano says. "We're not discriminating against these people."

The more provocative he can be, the better, he calculates. The Tobacco Institute sees he is earning his fee. And other businesses are attracted to him, he says. "They see that I'm a fighter."

Formidable opponents

Because of his efforts, his opponents have cast him as a public enemy. The American Lung Association has been battling with him for years. Nelson J. Sabatini, Maryland's health secretary, accused him of representing the "merchants of death." State Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, says legislators increasingly view Mr. Bereano as "overbearing" and "oversolicitous." His power is derived from the Tobacco Institute, which tries to thwart a public that favors tough (P anti-smoking laws, Mr. Winegrad complains.

Mr. Bereano sees his work for the tobacco interests as an intellectual exercise. "It forces me to be creative," he says. "Every lobbyist wants to be part of the tough battles, the high stakes battles. They can improve their skills. They can test their mettle."

A nonsmoker

Mr. Bereano does not argue that smoking is a safe activity. But he won't acknowledge the link between smoking and cancer.

"I don't know," he insists. "I'm not a scientist."

When he was interviewed for his job by representatives of The Tobacco Institute, he believed he should make one thing clear at the outset.

"No offense or anything," he said, "but I don't smoke." The concern was instantly dismissed. Can you kill bills? he was asked. He was hired.

Though he promotes an activity he rejects himself, Mr. Bereano says his work has been helped by his nonsmoking status, as if his advocacy is given some credibility by the fact that an abstainer could defend those who indulge.

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