Smoking in Maryland draws legislative fire

March 13, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

Is "The Free State" of Maryland on its way to becoming the "Smoke Free State"?

It's certainly being thrust into the national spotlight with sweeping proposals that would make it harder to light up and buy cigarettes.

The state is on track to become the first to use occupational health and safety laws to ban smoking in virtually every workplace, including bars and restaurants.

As if that weren't enough for one season, the Maryland General Assembly is considering 40 anti-smoking bills, double the number introduced a year ago.

"This is an unprecedented number of bills on tobacco," said Stephen C. Buckingham, a lobbyist for the Maryland affiliates of the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association.

Some bills would essentially put the workplace rule into law, in case the tobacco industry succeeds in tying up that regulation in court.

Other legislation would ban most cigarette vending machines, crack down on stores that sell cigarettes to children and raise the tobacco tax.

Although anti-smoking forces are cheering those efforts -- along with restrictions proposed nationally by the military and McDonald's -- they know it's too early to claim victory in Annapolis.

That's because no one -- especially not a grass-roots coalition -- expects an easy ride when taking on the nation's tobacco industry and its Maryland lobbyist, Bruce C. Bereano.

Mr. Bereano is the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis, a politically savvy lawyer who spends thousands of dollars entertaining legislators.

He has the money, organization and legal know-how to fight what he calls "the health police" -- coalitions of nonprofit health associations, doctors and parents.

Never has Mr. Bereano seen such an attack on smoking. "No question. They have gotten more extreme, irrational, emotional, more anti-business. They're just in a frenzy," he said last week, his voice rising.

But the so-called health police view Mr. Bereano as the frenzied one, fighting a battle he will lose eventually.

Nationwide, the anti-smoking movement has gained strength in recent years with reports linking second-hand smoke to cancer, lung ailments and heart attacks in nonsmokers.

Locally, activists point to Maryland's unfortunate distinction of having the second-highest cancer death rate in the country.

"The time has come where there's no reason for anyone to be exposed to a health hazard," said Del. Virginia M. Thomas, a Howard County Democrat who wants the legislature to pass a law banning smoking in public places.

Her bill is one of many expected to be voted on by legislative committees this week. The list includes bills in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's anti-smoking package, his most comprehensive.

The governor's goal is to make life difficult for children and teens who fall under the spell of Joe Camel, the cartoon creation of cigarette advertising executives.

His proposals would make it more difficult for youths to find cigarette vending machines and would give storekeepers more incentive to check teens' identification. Another would require smokers of all ages to pay an extra quarter-a-pack tax. Studies indicate that higher taxes discourage smoking, especially among teens.

One Schaefer bill would give counties and cities the legal muscle to regulate tobacco sales, as some have tried to do. Mr. Bereano, however, has succeeded in getting one version of that bill killed in a House committee.

Mr. Bereano appears to be winning over some legislators on the vending machine issue by contending that it is bad for business -- a sensitive topic in a state coming out of a recession.

Lobbyists for stores, vending machine companies and food markets have joined him in sounding the alarm.

Ron Strickland, sales manager of TD Rowe, a Glen Burnie vending corporation, told lawmakers: "They happen to feed my wife and my family. We should be allowed to sell cigarettes through machines."

Andrea Cohn, a lobbyist for Governor Schaefer, acknowledged the impact of economic appeals. "Many legislators say, 'I oppose smoking, I oppose kids smoking,' but they're afraid to impinge on merchants and the tobacco industry," she said.

Those legislators, however, do not have the same reservations about impinging on underage smokers.

Bills that would make it illegal for minors to buy or possess cigarettes are gaining momentum. Some have the support of pro- and anti-smoking forces. If such a measure passes, anti-smoking groups will lose one their most effective lobbying strategies.

Year after year, they bring to Annapolis children clutching cigarettes they bought from cashiers and vending machines -- ++ including some right in the legislative complex. The children effectively demonstrate the need to stop illegal sales to minors, while at the same time embarrassing pro-tobacco legislators.

Although anti-smoking groups say they have public opinion on their side -- after all, most people don't smoke -- they face many obstacles in Annapolis.

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