Foes of tobacco lost big -- again All-or-nothing tactics, some say, got them 'sucker-punched'

March 31, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Maryland's state motto is "Manly deeds, womanly words," but it could well be "Smoke 'em if you've got 'em."

Once again this year, the tobacco lobby bested health advocates who had hoped a rising tide of public concern and the personal advocacy of Gov. Parris N. Glendening would win approval of two anti-smoking measures in the General Assembly.

Instead -- partly because health advocates insisted on a whole legislative loaf -- they are headed home with none.

Though lawmakers were wary of raising any taxes, the anti-tobacco forces hoped a higher tax on cigarettes would be an exception. Indeed, some lawmakers were willing to vote for a minimally higher levy to discourage young people from lighting up.

Such a bill emerged from a House committee last week. But the increase was too little in the view of the anti-smoking forces: not high enough to be a deterrent for youths with limited incomes, they said.

The health advocates insisted on amending the bill to impose a full dollar-a-pack increase -- and lost everything.

After the amendment passed, a series of maneuvers sent the bill flying back to committee, where, according to House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., it will almost certainly die.

"I've never seen so many liberals get sucker-punched on a bill," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat.

The anti-smoking team defended its tactics, but a frustrated Glendening administration official said: "They have one play in their playbook: a 100-yard, Hail Mary pass play for a touchdown. They have no other way of getting points on the board."

In similar fashion, an effort to gain a total ban on cigarette sales in vending machines died in a Senate committee the week before. A nearly identical measure sits in a House committee, where it is not likely even to come up for a vote.

The prospects had seemed so much better in the first skirmishes -- on the surface.

Star witnesses crowded into House and Senate committee rooms March 12 and 13 to demand the outright ban on vending machine sales.

They were led by Maryland's secretary of health, the state attorney general, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, the Baltimore Orioles team physician, the Montgomery County executive and two young friends of President Clinton from Gaithersburg.

They had come to contend that these machines are purveyors of addiction and death -- and easily accessible to young smokers. With federal regulations tightening over-the-counter sales, the vending machines could be a last recourse point of sale for minors.

"We wanted a clean bill," said Stephen C. Buckingham, who lobbies for the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association. "We wanted something that sent a clear message that the state was finally serious about the 111-year-old state law that says you can't sell cigarettes to kids."

'Grotesque loopholes'

The vending machine restrictions have "grotesque loopholes," the committee was told by Taylor Branch, whose "Parting the Waters," a history of the civil rights era, won the Pulitzer Prize. Children sent out to test the restrictions were too successful at using the machines. Clerks were lackadaisical in handling the sale of tokens. Surrogate buyers are often available.

Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Martin P. Wasserman told the committee that cigarettes would get their children and grandchildren, too. "You are confronted with an opportunity to -- change things," he said.

But legislative committees are always hearing what they think of as scare stores -- "crap" from the cancer society, said one legislator during the debate on Friday. A consensus of concern in the wider world does not always translate into a majority in Annapolis.

And, as rich as they were in celebrity, outrage and logic, the witnesses were working against powerful currents: The assembly operates in a 350-year-old culture of tobacco and smoking, dating back to Colonial times. Many members of the Environmental Matters Committee are smokers, moreover -- as are many of their constituents. The Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., represents a tobacco-growing region. And some legislators were out to hand Glendening a defeat.

A number of other factors provided leverage for tobacco interests: The smoking foes have few personal relationships with committee members. Personal relationships are coin of the realm in Annapolis. Veteran lobbyists have been full-service friends to senators or delegates they sometimes refer to as "votes," vacationing with them, handling a divorce, playing golf and advising on legislation, including this year's vending machine bills.

The anti-smoking team was almost too democratic, including witnesses and gimmicks that annoyed committee members. Two young men who have been proving for years that youths can buy cigarettes in vending machines make the pro-tobacco forces smile because they know the message is working against them.

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