Foes of smoking take heart as politicians quit puffing Effect on lawmaking remains uncertain

June 29, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Robert W. Curran jerks his head toward the Baltimore City Hall front doors while plucking a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. "Step into my office," Curran says in his trademark raspy voice.

Curran's "office" is the cobblestone courtyard outside the city's government center. The northwest Baltimore city councilman is relegated there for part of the day for one reason: He is the only member of the City Council who smokes.

An increasing number of lawmakers in city councils, the General Assembly and Congress have smoked their last cigarettes, possibly signaling an end to the era of "smoke-filled room" politics. Although some observers see the growing number of puffless politicians as an outgrowth of more constituents quitting, smoking opponents welcome the trend as an emotional weapon in their fight against tobacco.

"It helps us greatly that legislators know firsthand how addictive and damaging smoking is," said Vincent DeMarco, executive director of Maryland's Children's Initiative, whose goal is to eradicate teen smoking. "They know how hard it is to quit because a lot of them started when they were teen-agers."

The most recent figures released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta show 47 million smokers, almost one in five Americans. However, the number of former smokers is closing in at 44.3 million, the statistics show. Of more concern is the rise in teen smoking, which has jumped 50 percent since 1992 with 3,000 new teen smokers a day.

In the past five years, four Baltimore council members quit smoking. That leaves Curran as the sole smoker on the 18-member panel in a state founded two centuries ago from sprouting Chesapeake Bay tobacco plantations.

"If I had one affliction I could get rid of " Curran, 48, says with a sigh, puffing outside City Hall, where anti-smoking laws have pushed him and other employees.

The inconvenience of having to go outside to smoke has caused many politicians to quit. In Congress, where smoking has long been associated with power, the "smokers caucus" has been shrinking since smoking was banned on the House floor in 1990.

"It makes it difficult to do your job," said southeast Baltimore Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, who quit last year after 35 years. "You can't smoke anywhere; you're treated like a criminal."

Others quit for health reasons: Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. had quadruple bypass heart surgery three years ago.

"I am very strongly convinced that it is one of the worst products you can use," Taylor said. "And I'm mad as hell that it is clearly addictive and that the producers play on that addiction."

Although tobacco opponents welcome the declining number of politicians who smoke, whether it will aid the anti-smoking cause politically is uncertain.

Representatives of the Tobacco Institute in Washington, the chief spokesman for U.S. tobacco companies, said they see no political impact on the tobacco issue due to lawmakers quitting. Last week, the Senate killed the $368.5 billion tobacco agreement that would have placed tighter restrictions on the industry.

Even tobacco opponents concede that the personal smoking habits of lawmakers such as Curran -- who will run again next year -- are not a campaign issue. How legislators deal with tobacco in the political arena, however, is expected to increasingly become a focus of elections.

"Voters are still seeing smoking as a choice we make as adults," said Glenn Schneider, a community organizer for Smoke Free Maryland. "What we do about those who have yet to start smoking, that's a concern."

Predicting tobacco-influenced votes based on personal consumption, even at the local level, is tricky. Recently, Baltimore became the first city in the state to propose a local tax of from 36 to 90 cents per sale on cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco. Curran supports the tax to reduce smoking, while the nonsmoking Garey sees it as discriminatory.

"I don't think it will accomplish what they want it to accomplish," Garey said of the tax. "When I couldn't afford it as a teen-ager, I just got a job so I could smoke."

Taylor agrees. "I'm strongly concerned that applying a punitive high tax at the state level is counterproductive," he said. "It must be applied nationally so we don't create islands."

For his part, Curran's personal struggle with cigarettes has pushed him to do everything in his political power to make tobacco harder to obtain.

"I've quit a dozen times," he said. "And I'll quit again."

Pub Date: 6/29/98

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