Tobacco Industry Backs California Smoking Bill

A NEW front is opening in the uncivil war over smoking - with the latest volley coming from the tobacco industry.

An initiative backed by tobacco giant Philip Morris may be heading for the November ballot in California. The measure would abolish all local smoking bans and replace them with statewide standards that allowed people to light up in certain areas. It would be the first referendum of its kind in the country.

Last week Philip Morris and other supporters of the initiative, including some bar, hotel, and restaurant owners, handed in 607,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot. Roughly 424,000 valid signatures are needed to qualify.

The initiative would replace the 300 or so local ordinances that restrict smoking with a uniform code that could allow it in workplaces and designated areas of certain businesses - for instance, in up to 25 percent of a restaurant, hotel lobby, or bowling alley. Businesses would have to meet ventilation standards to permit smoking.

Because the codes are more restrictive than those of cities with weak ordinances, or none at all, supporters bill the measure as a regulation on smoking - the ``toughest statewide restriction in the United States,'' as Lee Stitzenberger, a spokesman for the proponents, puts it. They go by the name Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.

Critics see it as a deceptive attempt to undermine the no-smoking movement. ``It is masquerading as a uniform control act with tough restrictions,'' says John Nicholl, a political consultant to the Coalition for a Healthy California, which represents hospitals, heart and lung associations, and other antismoking groups. ``It would roll back 15 years of progress in California in limiting exposure to second-hand smoke.''

There is no guarantee the measure will make it to the ballot. Some people who signed the petition have since complained that they were misled by gatherers, believing it was aimed at banning smoking. Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller, whose office is investigating the complaints, warned this week that he would not certify any measure that ``met the signature requirement only by breaking the law.''

The outcome of a ballot vote would be closely watched. Passage would no doubt inspire Philip Morris - no other cigarette manufacturer has joined the campaign - to try similar measures in other states.

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