Stiffer rules proposed for tobacco sale; Retailers who sell to minors could lose licenses under plan; 'A very compelling logic'; Pilot program urged only for Howard to avoid state fight


Changing state law so that Howard County can suspend or revoke the sales licenses of merchants caught selling cigarettes to minors might sound like a simple idea, but getting it enacted by the General Assembly may be anything but.

State Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden, a Howard Republican, has proposed the change based on the suggestion of Peg Browning, chairwoman of the Coalition for Smoke Free Howard County. He is promoting the idea as a pilot program affecting only Howard as a way of avoiding another statewide battle over smoking.

"There's a very compelling logic behind it," Madden said, noting that current law allows only a fine for selling tobacco to people younger than 18, while liquor license holders face possible license suspension or revocation for selling to those younger than 21.

Madden's proposal, not yet drafted as a bill, would require a 30-day suspension of the state sales license for a first offense, 90 days for a second and license revocation for a third. He hasn't decided who would enforce the law.

It is "a sensible way to protect children," Madden wrote in a letter to The Sun.

Most Howard legislators applaud the idea, but they and other legislators, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, question whether such a measure would be seen as a local bill.

Others wonder if such a law would be enforced, and tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce Bereano vowed to fight it.

Lobby's opposition

"We would oppose that very vigorously," said Bereano, who represents retailers and producers of tobacco products. "Anything that's done should be done on a statewide basis," he said, noting that the state comptroller's office now enforces state law on tobacco licenses.

Miller, who received criticism from tobacco-farmer constituents and merchants for backing Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed cigarette tax increase last session, had doubts about the viability of Madden's idea.

General Assembly decision

"When we have issues involving alcohol, guns and tobacco, we generally let the entire General Assembly decide," Miller said.

"[Madden's] in a very difficult position. He's a Republican who represents a very progressive town of Columbia. He's certainly trying to weave his political magic," the Senate president said.

Madden said he's just floating the concept.

"I've always been able to work with the president of the Senate," he said. If his bill is approved by the Howard delegation this fall, "I'm sure it will get fair consideration" in Annapolis when the General Assembly session begins next year, he said.

An echo of the bruising debate over the tax increase was also clear in comments by the House minority leader, Del. Robert H. Kittleman, who supports Madden's proposal.

"That's the right way to do it, rather than taxing. I think it's great," said Kittleman, a Howard Republican.

Howard Democrats support the idea, too.

"It's a fine idea," said Del. Shane Pendergrass, who heads the county's House delegation.

Like-minded delegates

"I think in this county the delegation is pretty like-minded. We feel that children getting addicted to cigarettes is a bad thing," she said.

"I'd support it statewide," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, also a Democrat.

Frank S. Turner, another Democratic delegate, said he supports the concept but is concerned that enforcement might be difficult. That's also a concern of County Executive James N. Robey, who said he wants to see a written draft spelling out enforcement responsibility before taking a position.

Democratic state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties, said legislators would likely see Madden's bill as "very significant and symbolic legislation" and not as a local bill needing only local approval.

"I just can't see legislators letting this go through," he said, adding that a 30-day license suspension for a first offense may be too harsh a penalty.

'It's common sense'

Madden says times have changed, and his idea, backed by anti-smoking groups such as Smoke Free Maryland, might have a chance.

"To me, it's common sense. It's been proven to work with liquor," said Browning, a former smoker who suffers from the effects of throat and lung cancer. "I have four children of my own."

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