Panel urged to back ban on cigarette sales in vending machines Wait until challenges to federal regulations are settled, industry says

March 12, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Members of a House committee heard arguments yesterday for an outright ban on the sale of cigarettes in vending machines -- and were asked to contemplate the early deaths of their children and grandchildren if the pace of youthful smoking continues in Maryland.

Seeking to put a human face on statistics, Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Martin P. Wasserman said that statistically, a third of the committee members' 63 children and grandchildren would become addicted and seven would die prematurely of heart or lung disease.

An estimated 50 Maryland young people start smoking every week, he said. Statistics indicate that people are far less likely to begin smoking after age 21.

"These are your children," Wasserman told the committee. "You are confronted with an opportunity to change things."

How the committee will respond to Wasserman's sobering statistics was uncertain, but the assembly has often been sympathetic to the pro-smoking lobby's suggestion that regulations in this area are overreaching and overbearing.

The importance of vending machine restrictions could become greater, suggested Stephen C. Buckingham, a lobbyist for the Maryland Heart Association, because over-the-counter sales to minors could be made more difficult by new federal regulations requiring sellers to see proof of age. A machine, he said, can make no such demands.

Wasserman and an array of witnesses said Marylanders want more protections against the danger cigarettes pose. They spoke on eight bills that would restrict vending machine sales to bars and smoke shops or places where tokens must be purchased to use the machines; increase penalties for illegal sales; authorize the use of young people in compliance efforts; and impose the no-exceptions ban.

The tobacco industry argued that Maryland should hold its fire until it knows the outcome of suits challenging new federal anti-smoking regulations.

Vending machines, said Bruce C. Bereano, a longtime advocate for tobacco interests, are being "scapegoated." He challenged suggestions that the industry's economic value to the state is easily outweighed by the state's expenditures on behalf of those who develop smoking-related illness.

Speaking in favor of the toughest anti-smoking bill, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said Maryland has no obligation to wait for the courts or to make its sanctions less severe than the federal government's.

"You were elected by a district to do the right thing," Curran said.

He was followed to the witness table by Taylor Branch, a Baltimore author who wrote "Parting The Waters," a history of the civil rights movement. Branch said the current law contains "grotesque loopholes" that young people can easily use in search of a smoke.

Branch said he became an advocate of the vending machine ban and of attacking smoking in general when his 13-year-old daughter complained that a rule he had set meant an end to her social life.

If she was not allowed at parties where people were smoking, she would not be attending many parties, she told him.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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