Cigarette vending bill is passed

Measure will require machines to take tokens instead of coins

Governor to sign legislation

Exceptions granted to VFW halls, places that exclude minors

April 09, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Tobacco opponents won a major victory yesterday in the battle to keep cigarettes out of the hands of children, as the General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that will require most cigarette vending machines to take tokens instead of coins.

"It's a significant step forward," said Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who made clear that he will sign the bill into law. "It will reduce significantly the number of young people buying cigarettes."

The measure's passage in the last days of the legislative session that ends tomorrow came after 10 years of trying by anti-tobacco activists. "It was a smashing vote," said Del. Barbara Frush of the 120-30 margin of approval in the House of Delegates yesterday. The Senate passed the bill last month.

The legislation will ban coin-operated cigarette machines except in fraternal or veterans halls or in places where minors are excluded, such as some bars. An estimated 80 percent of the state's roughly 2,500 cigarette vending machines will be affected. Tokens can be sold by establishments where the machines are located.

Five other states have vending machine laws requiring tokens or other devices to keep children from buying cigarettes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frush, a Prince George's Democrat who pushed the bill through the House, said she was especially pleased that vending machine owners will face prosecution and fines for selling tokens to juveniles.

"We card people at bars when they buy a drink. Why not card them when they buy cigarettes?" she said.

Vending machines are a primary source of cigarettes for young smokers, according to the American Lung Association of Maryland. The group says 22 percent of 13-year-old smokers in the state use vending machines.

Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Foods Inc., said his company first used tokens in cigarette vending machines four years ago at a store in Frederick.

"We had great success with it. The customers were happy with it," Scher said. "We expanded it to all of our stores that do not have service counters and continue to use tokens today."

Lorenzo Romiti, owner of Squires restaurant in Dundalk and a former smoker, said he moved the cigarette machine three times to keep minors away. He said the bill would have a negligible effect on his business, but he said he did not like the idea of the government telling him what to do.

"Tokens on vending machines? Oh, please. When did they become my mother?" he said. John Pluchak, a regular at Squires, said he usually buys his cigarettes by the carton and seldom uses a machine. He said he supports the idea of making it harder for children to get cigarettes. Youngsters often buy them at a bar he visits where the vending machine is in the lobby, he said.

"If they're outside, accessible, where anyone can get to them, then I would say, `Yes.' I would go along with the tokens," said Pluchak, 65.

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the cigarette vending machine owners, had a different view of the vote.

He noted that three other bills that would have outlawed cigarette vending machines were killed in the legislature.

"Cigarette vending machines will still be alive and well in the state of Maryland," said Bereano, who discounted the argument about children getting cigarettes from the machines.

"That is a bunch of hogwash," he said. "Kids are not lined up in front of cigarette vending machines buying cigarettes. Kids were used as an excuse or a feel-good reason for legislators that are anti-tobacco. You could be selling cigarettes out of a vault, and they would want to ban that, too."

For Frush and other supporters, the vote came after years of defeat. Last year, the bill died in the House days before the legislature adjourned. The year before, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell killed a similar bill in the final minutes of the session because businesses that excluded children were not exempt.

Advocates say they were helped this year by the absence of tobacco industry lobbyists in the State House for the first time in years. The national tobacco settlement barred most lobbying by the industry.

Yesterday, the advocates also found they had the support of a long-time opponent. Del. George W. Owings III of southern Maryland told his colleagues he started smoking 45 years ago when he stole a cigarette from his parents.

"If I have one regret, it was that first cigarette," said Owings, who added that he has tried to stop smoking without success.

"I keep trying, and I keep buying. And I keep smoking, and I will until I die," he said.

Owings, one of five legislators who voted against the bill Friday in the Environmental Matters Committee, said he felt the time had come to stop fighting.

"I guess it was [Bob] Dylan who said it best: `You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,'" he said. "The time for this bill has arrived."

Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein test test test test now is the time for all good men contributed to this article.

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