ANNAPOLIS – After dozens of hearing hours, none of the 19 tobacco bills introduced in 1996 passed the General Assembly.
During the week of the session’s end, anti-smoking advocates were angry, but by and large not surprised. They blamed the lack of legislative results on the tobacco industry and members of the House Environmental Matters committee.
The panel was a checkpoint for 11 of the 19 bills, many of which addressed children’s access to tobacco products. It killed nine, and recommended passage of two. Eight tobacco bills either were assigned to other committees or withdrawn.
Anti-smoking forces, asked to explain the results, pointed to the Environmental Matters chairman:
“Two words, Ron Guns,” said Sen. Jennie Forehand, D- Montgomery, sponsor of a bill to require tokens to purchase cigarettes from vending machines. The measure was overwhelmingly approved by the Senate, but did not receive a hearing in Guns’ committee.
“There are a lot of people on that committee… who are very close to the lobbyists and tobacco companies,” Forehand said.
She added that Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, could have pressed harder for some of the tougher bills, a charge Taylor subsequently said he “wouldn’t dignify with a response.”
But some lawmakers, including Guns, said they object to such bills on the merits. Government cannot eradicate teen smoking, they said.
“It’s just like kids’ underage drinking,” Guns, a Cecil County Democrat, said. “You’re not going to stop it.”
Furthermore, these lawmakers argued that many of the measures before them were unfair to businesses.
“There’s some sense that we need to tighten it up,” Guns said, but some “people aren’t willing to take it step-by-step.”
One step that Guns favored would have banned vending machines in only a few areas, but the measure failed in the Senate. Opponents said that the bill addressed areas where there are no vending machines to begin with, and pronounced the legislation cynical.
“It wasn’t the greatest step, but it was a small step,” Guns countered.
The Tobacco Institute and the Maryland Association of Tobacco and Candy Distributors opposed many bills aimed at limiting children’s access.
One would have banned cigarette vending machines, with its supporters arguing that children start smoking because of them. Another, in part, would have held businesses responsible for minors using their vending machines, even when a warning sticker about the law is on a machine.
Tom Lauria, a Washington spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, said the vending machine bills would have done “nothing to address access for children” because most cigarettes are sold over the counter.
A bill intended to put teeth into existing laws would have legalized sting operations to nab store owners selling to minors. Another measure would have held tobacco companies financially responsible for smoking-related illnesses, but was withdrawn by its sponsor. Still another would have taxed smokeless tobacco.
Lobbyists spoke caustically of their foes’ causes.
Bruce Bereano, representing the Maryland vendors’ group, called many anti-smoking advocates “the health police” and “extremist crazies.” Lauria labeled the opposition “neo- prohibitionists.”
From the other side, Eric Gally, representing the Smoke-Free Maryland Coalition and the American Cancer Society, termed influential lawmakers’ attitudes “galling” and “appalling.” He said that the powerful tobacco interests wine, dine, and contribute to legislators, realities that made him pessimistic going into this year.
But lawmakers on both sides hesitated to question their colleagues’ motives or connections with interest groups. Instead, they spoke of winning converts or of legitimate differences of opinion.
Guns said some legislators “may not have the same convictions I have,” but should be warier of unenforceable regulations.
Del. Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, who sponsored a bill to ban all vending machines, said, “I don’t second-guess anyone’s vote. I think they could take aim at some of mine….
“I definitely felt there was more understanding and awareness” among more legislators than in the past, Morhaim, a physician, said.
Advocates of anti-smoking laws believe the tide is turning in their favor. They cite negative publicity about tobacco companies’ practices and the increasing numbers of younger and female legislators, who they said were more amenable to their goals.
“Supporters of this issue have grown tremendously,” said Joan Stine, director of the office of health promotion in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. As more people suffer the health consequences of smoking or see their loved ones suffer, she said, more will call for regulatory action. -30-