Irony in furor over teen smoking law

September 14, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland tobacco lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, a staunch defender of smokers' rights, supported a new law that makes tobacco possession by those younger than 18 illegal. Anti-smoking groups opposed it.

Welcome to the tactical war over smoking. It is one in which the anti-smokers called the new law an attempt to turn teen smokers into "outlaws" and Mr. Bereano attacked the "health police" for trying to find ways to embarrass him.

The new law takes effect Oct. 1 and provides for a $25 civil citation for a first offense and up to a $100 fine for later infractions.

It emerged as an issue last week when Jason D'Anna, 17, got caught with a lighted Marlboro in his mouth on the Dulaney High School parking lot as he left school. The youth's mother said he was threatened with arrest -- although the law had not taken effect -- if he refused to attend an anti-smoking class or accept a one-day suspension. School authorities denied the arrest threat.

Mr. Bereano was quoted Saturday in The Sun as being offended that Dulaney officials threatened Jason with the police, and called the incident "Big Brotherism at its height."

"I testified in favor of that bill in Annapolis," Mr. Bereano said Monday. He said he considers enforcement of anti-smoking laws a "shared responsibility."

"Purchasers should have legal responsibility" and the matter "should not fall only on the businessperson," he said.

But anti-smoking groups believe that education, not punitive legislation, is the only way to reduce the number of young smokers, said Eric Gally, communications director for the Maryland Division of the American Cancer Society.

Mr. Gally accused the tobacco industry and its spokesmen of "taking PR steps to make it seem like they care about minors smoking" while working hard through lobbyists to block strong laws to prevent teen smoking, such as provisions for state health department checks of merchants. The checks could be done by sending underage youths into stores to test their sales policies, the way police cadets test liquor sales laws in taverns, Mr. Gally said.

Walker Merryman, vice president of the Tobacco Institute in Washington, said the industry "absolutely . . . condemns" the use of tobacco products by children. But he said foes of smoking "tend to see Communists under every bed."

Dale Springer, chairman of the Cancer Society's Maryland Division, said the American Cancer Society has "long opposed punishing children who smoke cigarettes. . . ."

In a prepared statement, Mr. Springer said the cancer society "is asking school districts around the state to incorporate a yearly health living segment into the school curriculum." The program would include "nutrition and other healthy life-style choices as well as tobacco education," the statement said.

"The Bereano method of treating youthful smokers like outlaws will only alienate children into worse self-abusive behavior," Mr. Springer said.

Mr. Bereano responded: "The crazies -- the health police -- are obsessed, paranoid, about finding ways to embarrass me, to point the finger at me. . . . They're a bunch of crybabies."

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