ANNAPOLIS -- The tobacco industry opened the Maryland front of its national battle against local smoking restrictions this week behind a battalion of lobbyists pushing a comprehensive smokers' rights bill.
But the industry ran into an equally determined enemy yesterday when Gov. William Donald Schaefer said he would veto the measure.
Pushing his own aggressive anti-smoking campaign to erase Maryland's status as the No. 1 cancer state in the nation, Mr. Schaefer called the measure "a special interest bill."
"I oppose it," he said. Asked if he would veto it, Mr. Schaefer said, "Yes, I would."
Sponsored at the industry's request by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the bill would take away local governments' authority to enact future smoking regulations and give that authority to the legislature.
It would also prohibit employers from discriminating against people who smoke off the job and would require most businesses to establish a smoking policy. As a concession to anti-smoking forces, the bill would make it illegal for anyone under 18 to possess tobacco products.
"It's a reasonable bill that puts consistency into state policy," said Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist for the Smokeless Tobacco Council. "I defy anybody to say otherwise."
The effort is part of the tobacco industry's national strategy to move the fight over smoking away from city and county governments -- where they've lost many battles -- and into the 50 state legislatures, where the industry is well represented.
In fact, the tobacco industry has become a heavy player in state politics across the country. In California, for example, it contributed more than $7.3 million to state legislative candidates between 1986 and 1990.
California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown received more than $250,000 in tobacco contributions and was a strong supporter of tobacco-industry legislation.
Although it has been less active in Maryland politics, the industry has hired Mr. McCoy and two of the other top 10 earning lobbyists in the state.
The industry's latest recruit is former state Sen. Catherine I. Riley, who has close political ties to the senate president. Ms. Riley was hired by cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris after another ex-senator, Frank J. Komenda, left private lobbying to do the same kind of work for the University of Maryland system.
Ms. Riley quickly scored a coup by helping to recruit the influential Senate president.
"If you're in the health business, or the health insurance business, I'd think you'd probably not think a whole lot of this bill," conceded Ms. Riley, who was regarded as an expert on health issues when she chaired the Senate Finance Committee.
Anti-smoking forces were immediately upset to discover Ms. Riley was in the Senate lounge -- usually off-limits to lobbyists -- the same night the smoking bill was introduced. Mr. Miller said later that as a former senator, Ms. Riley was always welcome in the lounge or on the Senate floor as long as she refrained from lobbying there.
While the tobacco lobby battles annually with doctors' groups and health advocates seeking smoking limits, it changed its strategy this year to work with opponents and try to craft a "compromise" measure.
Mr. McCoy said the industry told anti-smoking advocates, "What's happening here is we're all spending a lot of money getting nowhere."
But the discussions broke up several weeks ago, and both sides resumed their normal posture -- at each other's throats.
For example, this is what Gerard E. Evans, a state medical society lobbyist, had to say of his opponents: "It's like going to bat for the napalm manufacturers."
Local officials across Maryland complained that the bill would take away their authority, a logical move for the industry, which has had little luck fighting at the local level.
"I'd be doing it, too," Mr. Evans said. "I'd want to concentrate my efforts on one target, the State House, rather than fighting from Elkton to Rockville on smoking fronts. The only way to do that is eviscerate the government that is closest to the people."
"The tobacco industry will stop at nothing to continue to promote this deadly habit," said C. Vernon Gray, a member of the Howard County Council, which has passed some of the strictest smoking restrictions in the state.
"It's just unfortunate," Baltimore County Councilman Melvin B. Mintz said, "that the state is taking away the county government's right to protect its citizens' lives."
Despite the opposition and the veto threat, the tobacco industry will persevere, Mr. McCoy said. It will also be fighting on several other fronts.
Mr. Schaefer will host a news conference today to promote his plan to add 25 cents a pack to the cigarette tax. That could raise an estimated $105 million in a year when money is short. There are a handful of other measures pending to limit smoking or the sale of cigarettes.
A bill sponsored by Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County, would prohibit the sale of cigarettes in vending machines, a primary source of tobacco for minors. The stars of a hearing on the measure this week were Montgomery County brothers, ages 10 and 7, who produced several packs they bought in vending machines, including one at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis.
Waiting to rebut them was Bruce C. Bereano, the highest-paid lobbyist in the State House, who represents both the Tobacco Institute and the vending machine industry.
While he commended the youngsters for testifying, he complained that supporters of the bill "want to ban people from smoking. They want to proselytize."
"You're getting more and more zealots in life," Mr. Bereano added later. "Be it smoking, be it dietary precautions -- they're just trying to destroy other people's lives. That's the kind of society that's being developed."
Common ground will be hard to find in smoking issues, Mr. McCoy said, because anti-smoking forces won't compromise:
"If the industry said smoking is no good and we should cut off the thumbs of anybody that smokes, they'd say, 'That's no good. That's the industry position.