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INDUSTRY LOBBY STILL SMOKING IN LEGISLATURES

INDUSTRY LOBBY STILL SMOKING IN LEGISLATURES

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It's increasingly fashionable to knock the tobacco industry, but the salvos from public officials and consumers have yet to seriously threaten its political health.

Both sides in the battle over cigarette smoking agree that the tobacco lobby is losing few fights on Capitol Hill and winning significant victories at the state level.``I wouldn't feel sorry for them yet,' said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of a House health subcommittee. ``They still have a formidable amount of power in the Congress and influence around this country. They still have economic clout.'

One of the most powerful industry trade groups is the Tobacco Institute, representing the nation's cigarette makers. The institute has nine field offices with three employees each, plus lobbyists in all the state capitols and some key cities. Its political action committee raises about $200,000 for federal candidates during each two-year election cycle.

On the other side are anti-smoking groups, growing in both size and sophistication, making their case with lots of passion and not much money.

The two major national groups are the grass-roots Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights and the Coalition on Smoking OR Health, which represents the American heart, lung and cancer associations and other voluntary health groups.

Reinforcing their efforts is Louis Sullivan, secretary of health and human services, who does not miss a chance to slam the tobacco industry.

He has attacked campaigns to market new cigarette brands to inner-city blacks and undereducated young women and reported that smoking costs the country $52 billion a year in bad health and lost productivity. He's also asked advertising agencies to reject tobacco accounts, television stations to warn viewers against smoking and athletic associations to reject ``blood money' from tobacco companies seeking to sponsor sporting events.

The tobacco lobby lost a big one when Congress passed the smoking ban that took effect last month on nearly all domestic airline flights. Its only comparable defeat came in 1983, when the federal excise tax on cigarettes was doubled to 16 cents.

After the airline ban took effect, some congressmen said they would turn their attention to railroads. Last week, just a few weeks later, Amtrak announced it would eliminate smoking on some trains and in some stations effective April 1.

While keeping damages to a minimum in Congress, the industry often has prevailed on the state level. Its latest project is to win statewide pre-emption laws that impose some smoking restrictions but bar cities or counties from passing anything more severe.

Such laws are a pivotal industry strategy as more and more localities enact smoking ordinances. One of the strictest took effect this year in Greensboro, N.C., a key tobacco state.

``When you have 95,000 local units of government in this country and you have a finite amount of resources, then the smart thing to do is to try to limit the potential for mischief,' said Walker Merryman, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute.

Mark Pertschuk, director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, said his group is getting its best results at the local level. That's where 90 percent of anti-smoking activity occurs, from protecting non-smokers to banning vending machines and free samples, Pertschuk said.

Pre-emption laws are thus ``an extraordinary victory' for the tobacco industry, he said.

A pre-emption law recently passed in Virginia placing limitations on public smoking. What worries Pertschuk more is tobacco interests winning in states such as Pennsylvania, Florida and Illinois, where their crop has never been king.

But if some state capitols are still in the grip of the tobacco lobby, Pertschuk and others say the industry's hold on Capitol Hill is weakening.

As evidence, they point to the airline smoking ban and a barrage of anti-tobacco proposals pending or soon to be introduced.

Some of the plans would ban advertising. One would limit ads to text only, with no logos or photographs, and another would give states the power to limit cigarette billboards.

Others would raise the cigarette excise tax, eliminate tax breaks for business expenses associated with cigarette advertising and promotion, tighten federal regulation of toxic cigarette ingredients and create a public health agency for tobacco research and education campaigns.

Proponents say they have momentum from the flight ban victory and expect to achieve at least some of their agenda this year.

``Many of my colleagues understand that public opinion has moved dramatically on the whole issue of tobacco,' Waxman said. ``Public opposition to tobacco is growing. The strength of the anti-smoking majority is growing.'

Pertschuk said the entire anti-tobacco agenda is passable, given enough constituent pressure on members of Congress.

``People just basically laughed at us when we asked to ban smoking on airplanes four years ago,' he said. ``It was not considered to be at all feasible. It's just in hindsight that it seems doable.'

But Merryman described the airline smoking ban as an isolated defeat.

``We were the only opponent,' he said. ``And the time is long, long past when any single vested interest could hope to defeat legislation.'

The airline scenario is unlikely to be repeated because labor, business and civil liberties groups, and even President Bush have aligned themselves with the institute against various other initiatives, Merryman said.

``The issues don't dovetail at all,' he said. ``People who don't like smoking on airlines are not in favor of censorship or regressive taxation.'

Even if all the proposals passed, Merryman said, ``Nothing that's pending is going to put us out of business.'

Nor is he worried about Sullivan's rhetoric or leaks of controversial marketing campaigns.

``We'll roll with those punches. They're not fatal by any means,' he said. ``Anybody who thinks we're down for the count is deluding themselves.'

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