Tobacco wins one in Annapolis Smoking foes see 'grand strategy'


The tobacco industry, fighting to keep anti-smoking legislation from spreading from state capitals to county seats and city halls, won at least a temporary victory in the Maryland House of Delegates yesterday.

By a 75-53 vote, the House approved an amendment to a bill that would increase state penalties for cigarette sales to minors. The amendment -- pushed by Tobacco Institute lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano -- strips a provision that said the legislation was not intended to pre-empt more stringent anti-smoking laws by local governments.

The tobacco industry fears that such a provision could hurt a lawsuit -- pending before the state Court of Appeals -- that seeks to overturn local ordinances regulating cigarette sales from vending machines in Bowie and Takoma Park and throughout Montgomery County.

Mr. Bereano, the highest paid lobbyist in Annapolis and one who has long been active in campaign fund-raising for lawmakers, said he simply wanted the legislature to remain neutral on the local ordinance issue until the high court decides the case.

For years, the tobacco industry dealt with smoking issues exclusively at the state or federal levels. But as society has increasingly viewed smoking as harmful, the industry has been forced to fight a costly holding action at the county and municipal government levels as well.

Supporters of local ordinances said they fear that if the legislature passes the cigarette bill without the provision expressly permitting tougher local laws, the high court could conclude that the General Assembly's intent was to pre-empt such local authority.

"This is all part of a grand strategy to help children purchase cigarettes illegally," contended Robin F. Shaivitz, lobbyist for the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.

A version of the same bill passed the Senate Monday night; it still contains the local authority provision removed by the House yesterday. That means the dispute probably will not be resolved until a conference committee is appointed to iron out differences between the two measures.

The companion bills, introduced by Gov. William Donald Schaefer in an effort to discourage young people from getting hooked on smoking, would substantially increase penalties on those who sell to minors.

Both bills would raise the fine for selling tobacco products to under-age customers from the current $100 to $1,000 for the first offense and $5,000 for the second.

The Senate version goes even further, providing for a 60-day suspension of the license to sell cigarettes for a third offense, and suspension of the license for up to one year for a fourth; it also contains a provision to fine minors who are caught smoking $50, $150 and $250 for the first, second and third offenses.

The House version contains a provision that goes beyond those who hold licenses to sell cigarettes. Any individual who sells tobacco products or cigarette rolling papers to minors could be fined $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for the second.

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