Tobacco's lobby wilting as grass roots reach deep

In Annapolis, power shifts toward $1 boost in cigarette tax

April 01, 1999|By C. FRASER SMITH | C. FRASER SMITH,SUN STAFF

After years of supremacy in the General Assembly, lobbyists for the Goliath of Big Tobacco could be felled this year by the David of grass-roots opposition.

Anti-tobacco forces want a $1 increase in the tax imposed on every package of cigarettes, asserting that higher prices will take vulnerable teen-agers out of the smokers market.

The argument is not a new one for legislators. But the power relationship has changed enough to make passage of a tax increase likely, though it may be less than $1.

Supporters have been turned back with nothing in the past, so even a 50-cent boost would be a breakthrough.

The corporate lobbying corps in Annapolis, having grown in size and sophistication to be viewed as the Assembly's "Third House," occasionally uses grass-roots tactics to augment its usual expertise. With polling, rallies by affected groups and telephone banks, lobbyists try to build public support into their arguments.

Almost every year, community organizations attempt genuine grass-roots campaigns but are overwhelmed by political forces and commercial lobbying opponents. Two years ago, the anti-smoking group held out for a $1 tax increase and got nothing.

This year, though, grass-roots lobbyists may succeed by adding a layer of political power to a statewide coalition of passionate citizen advocates.

The Maryland Children's Initiative and Smoke Free Maryland began their lobbying campaign last spring by making support of the $1 tax increase an 1998 election issue. Several of their legislative allies won -- and several opponents lost -- altering the issue's voting balance.

Major leverage was added by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who made the $1 tax boost -- 50 cents a year for two years -- a must in his 1999 legislative package. No tax increase, no pork barrel budget, he has warned the General Assembly.

So for the first time in years, grass-roots groups might trample the tassel loafer set.

A legion of no-name advocates has descended on the Assembly: Knots of clergymen weighed down with brilliant pink or yellow handouts have been standing in doorways looking for legislators throughout the session. They have been joined by students, survivors of smoking's victims, county executives and lobbyists for an array of social issues.

Once the pushovers of the tobacco wars -- taunted as health police by some of the tobacco lobbyists -- the coalition includes 360 community groups, 7,000 Maryland physicians, national health organizations willing to spend big dollars, 600 high schools and middle schools, and two beauty queens.

They need every voice. The presiding officers of both the House of Delegates and the state Senate are resolutely opposed to a $1 increase -- and tobacco industry lobbyists have, in the past, used this opposition as their trump card. Nor is the strong economy auspicious for an initiative that requires legislators to vote for a tax.

Still, the grass-roots advocates have made a strong first step. The House of Delegates has passed a bill calling for $1-per-pack increase in the price of cigarettes and the measure is given good prospects for approval by the Senate Committee on Budget and Tax, its next hurdle.

"We're doing the same things we've always done," says Eric Gally, a veteran lobbyist for the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. "We just have a lot more power to put behind it this year."

Well-spoken and bearing the instructive scars of earlier defeats, Gally and his frequent lobbying partner, Vincent DeMarco, corner legislators like friendly St. Bernards and harass reporters incessantly for coverage.

DeMarco, who wears the same gray and fraying Winnie the Pooh necktie every day for good luck, stays in touch with his far-flung army via a cell phone as powerful as any. His coat-tugging, laughing style helped gun control interests defeat the powerful gun lobby in several encounters in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The same strategy can work with cigarettes, he says.

"Tobacco is the richest lobby in the nation," he says. "This bill can't pass unless people want it. So, if we win, we won it during last [year's legislative] election."

After paying for a poll showing that a majority of Marylanders favor the tax increase, Smoke Free Maryland asked legislative candidates to sign a pledge of support for the bill. At least eight pro-tax delegates replaced eight pro-tobacco votes, he said.

To hold their votes and to avoid further slippage in support, the cancer association hired a Nebraska firm to make 8,000 phone calls at a dollar a call in search of voters who would call their legislators.

The Maryland State Teachers Association, another member of Smoke Free Maryland, provided one of several phone bank lists -- names and numbers of people to place those grass-roots calls.

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