The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill prohibiting the sale of cigarettes through coin-operated vending machines -- an objective sought by anti-tobacco legislators for more than a decade.
A final vote on the bill, intended to keep tobacco products out of the hands of children, could come as early as today.
The bill would prohibit the use of vending machines to sell tobacco products unless they are set up to accept only tokens, which would be sold by the establishments where the machines are located.
It was approved by the House Environmental Matters Committee yesterday 16-5 and was moved by the House to a final vote without objection. The strong majority in committee, which included support from Republicans and some conservative Democrats, indicated the legislation has a good chance of winning final approval.
If proponents can ward off amendments on the floor, House passage would send the bill to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who is expected to sign it.
"This would be one of the strictest vending machine laws in the country," said Eric Gally, a lobbyist for the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.
Bruce C. Bereano, the longtime lobbyist for vending machine companies, was continuing his efforts to kill the bill. He declined to comment on his chances, but opponents to the bill said this could be the year the legislation will prevail.
"I think it's going to happen," said Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat who opposed the bill in committee.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, five other states have vending machine laws requiring tokens or other devices to prevent use by juveniles. Twelve others restrict placement to areas inaccessible to children.
The measure's sponsor, Sen. Ida G. Ruben, said she has been supporting such legislation for more than 10 years. "Maybe we can save a few lives and a few kids from starting the habit," the Montgomery County Democrat said.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim, the bill's chief advocate in the House, said the attorney general has ruled that sale of a tobacco vending machine token to a minor would fall under the laws prohibiting sale of tobacco to a minor.
The legislation would exempt machines in fraternal or veterans' halls and in places where minors are prohibited by law from entering.
Morhaim, a physician, said he did not believe the bill would have a significant effect on sales to adults but would greatly reduce illegal purchases by children.
"They will have a harder time getting access during their vulnerable years," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "Everyone I know who smokes started when they were 12, 13, 14."
He said teen-age smokers he has talked with have told him that vending machines are one of their major sources of cigarettes.
While the bill's chances appear better than ever this year, proponents will be on guard because of the legislation's history of being ambushed late in past legislative sessions.
Two years ago, a similar bill failed in the waning minutes of the session because of the opposition of Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who threatened to talk the bill to death because taverns that excluded children were not exempted.
This year, with that provision in the bill, he joined the 45-1 majority that passed it in the Senate.
Last year, the bill passed the House in the last week of the session on an 81-50 vote, then failed after delegates voted to reconsider their decision.