Hooking children on cigarettes

October 01, 1993

Some Maryland legislators are horrified at putting lottery vending machines in places where kids can use them. Let's see how upset they get at permitting cigarette vending machines where children have access to them. After all, both gambling and nicotine can be addictive. Smoking is more so -- and it's got a good chance of being fatal, too.

The issue arises from the recent decision of the Maryland Court of Appeals rejecting local ordinances in Takoma Park and Bowie requiring that cigarette machines be located only in places where children ordinarily would not have access to them. A court majority held that local governments could not regulate the sale of cigarettes by machines because the state already dealt with the subject. Two veteran members of the court dissented, but only because they did not think the state had really pre-empted the issue.

That's puzzling to non-lawyers, because in the last four months appellate courts in three other states have upheld total bans on cigarette vending machines anywhere in a locality. The difference is that in those states -- Massachusetts, New Jersey and California -- local governments are barred from passing laws only if they conflict directly with a state law, not simply because the state has dealt somehow with the same subject. Maryland's approach to sharing jurisdiction is not dictated by the state Constitution or statute. It's the interpretation that our courts have followed for a century or more.

Which means the local control of vending machines can be permitted by a simple act of the General Assembly. Seems obvious enough, since anyone who hasn't sold his soul to the Tobacco Institute agrees smoking is harmful and that children should be discouraged from taking it up. Not to mention the fact that it has been illegal to sell cigarettes to minors in Maryland since 1886. But that law can't be enforced very effectively for vending machine sales. Which is exactly why the tobacco industry has fought so hard to maintain them. Hook 'em early, before the lessons hard-learned by their elders have sunk in.

This puts the issue squarely to the legislature. Ten attempts to regulate cigarette vending machines have died in state Senate or House committees in the past three years. They were not even brought to the floor for an open vote. That is testimony to the back room skills of the tobacco industry's lobbyist here, Bruce Bereano. He is so smugly confident he can continue killing anti-tobacco legislation that he bragged in a recent interview how his past success helped him finance his divorce and remarriage.

Members of the legislature need to be reminded that burying bills to keep cigarettes away from children also helps bury some of those children for real later on. Election Day next year would be an excellent time to deal with those who fail to do their duty at the coming session this winter.

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