Smoking resolution is revised

March 08, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Faced with a $1.5 million lawsuit from a powerful tobacco lobbyist, the Howard County Council last night radically revised a resolution that would have encouraged business owners to get rid of cigarette vending machines.

The council then approved an amended resolution, which asks the Maryland General Assembly to enact legislation that would allow local jurisdictions to regulate cigarette vending machines.

The resolution also urges the legislature to pass legislation that would keep cigarette vending machines out of places frequented by minors.

"I think I've just won my lawsuit in a different way," said Bruce C. Bereano, lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute. The revised resolution is moot, Mr. Bereano said, because state legislative committees have already killed bills similar to those sought by the council.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Bereano filed suit in Howard Circuit Court against the county and four of the five council members. He also asked for an emergency injunction to prevent the council from acting on its vending machine resolution.

The injunction was denied on grounds that the court had no authority to stop the council from considering a measure that was still pending. However, Circuit Judge Dennis M. Sweeney left open the possibility that Mr. Bereano could return to court and present his arguments if the council approved the resolution.

Council members, who spent 30 minutes in a closed meeting with the county attorney before voting on the vending machine resolution last night, decided not to push the issue, giving Mr. Bereano what he said afterward was "a complete victory."

The lobbyist said he will decide today whether to withdraw his suit.

Mr. Bereano based the suit on a case he won before the Maryland Court of Appeals last September. The state's highest appellate court ruled in that case that only the General Assembly could regulate cigarette vending machines.

Although the resolution originally drafted by the council merely encouraged businesses, especially those which are easily accessible to minors, to remove cigarette vending machines from their premises, Mr. Bereano said it would not have been interpreted as such.

"At the very least, the resolution is a de facto restriction . . . and at worst, it is a de facto ban," he said in his suit. He asked $500,000 in compensatory damages for a Beltsville vending machine company and $1 million in punitive damages.

Mr. Bereano filed suit against the county and council members Darrel Drown, R-2nd; Paul R. Farragut, D-4th; Charles C. Feaga, R-5th; and Shane Pendergrass, D-1st. He accused them in his suit of malice, saying they were trying to circumvent a state law with which they do not agree.

"The fact that they [changed] the resolution . . . shows that they knew it was wrong," Mr. Bereano said.

Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, the chief architect of the county's anti-smoking legislation, was not named in the suit because he was not a co-sponsor of the resolution, Mr. Bereano said.

The naming of Mr. Feaga, who has voted consistently against every bill to limit smoking in public places, was a mistake and his name will be removed from the suit today, Mr. Bereano said.

The council also gave Mr. Bereano what he wanted last night in regard to a second $1.5 million suit filed against them yesterday. His second suit said the council acted illegally last September in approving a bill that required vending machines to have labels warning against cigarette sales to minors.

The council introduced a bill last night to strike the warning label clause. The bill to delete the clause will have a public hearing March 21 and will be voted on April 4.

"If it's done correctly, I will withdraw the suit," Mr. Bereano said.

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