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This fall, new push against Big Tobacco

A record eight states have antismoking initiatives on the ballot, including ones that would raise taxes per pack.

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 28, 2006



NEW YORK

Smoking is back in the cross hairs.

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This fall, voters in a record eight states will be voting on tobacco-control initiatives that range from sharply higher taxes to smoking bans in most workplaces.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the tobacco industry had conspired to mislead the American public about the health effects of smoking. She also ruled that one remedy is to end use of the terms "light" and "low tar."

And the industry may face yet more counteradvertising: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said he was donating $125 million for global antitobacco efforts.

The results of the state initiatives in particular will be a gauge of political will, antismoking groups believe. If the initiatives pass, they say, members of Congress will take notice and perhaps consider national regulation of tobacco. And as more states protect the rights of non-smokers, they point out, pressure mounts on more lenient states.

"By 2008 or 2009, we may have made every state smoke-free in restaurants and the workplace," says Paul Billings, vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association in Washington. "As people visit places like New York, California, Delaware, or Maine and have a smoke-free experience, they come to expect it in their own state."

As part of the tobacco-control efforts, states have been steadily raising per-pack taxes. The current average state cigarette tax, including Washington, D.C., is 93.7 cents per pack, up from 91.6 cents this January and up from 72 cents a pack in January 2004.

One of the latest such efforts is in California, where a coalition of health groups met last year to begin a citizen process to raise the state's cigarette taxes, which had not been hiked since the late 1990s. Using a recommended level suggested by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the groups settled on a hike of $2.60 a pack, which would make California cigarette taxes among the highest in the nation.

"We said, what is the amount that actually has an impact?" says Kris Deutschman, communications director for Proposition 86, the name of the ballot initiative. According to the American Lung Association in California, 200 underage kids begin to smoke in the state a day, and there are currently 200,000 underage smokers. "We think between the size of the increase and the use of the funds, it will prevent 700,000 kids in California from starting to smoke," says Ms. Deutschman.

But those opposed to the new tax, a combination of tobacco interests and business groups, have already been hitting the airwaves. John Singleton, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in Winston-Salem, N.C., says raising taxes would "create all kinds of problems for retailers." It would "exacerbate" the smuggling problem, he says, and perhaps give extra money to those raising money for terrorism.

Terrorism and smuggling are "red herrings," replies Paul Knepprath, a vice president at the American Lung Association of California in Sacramento. "We already have the infrastructure to combat smuggling, and 70 percent of people buy their cigarettes at the most expensive place – the convenience store."

Reynolds, which has said it will spend $40 million fighting the ballot initiatives, is bankrolling opposition to proposed smoking restrictions in Arizona and Ohio. The company's strategy includes a competing proposal that sounds like health measures but allows smoking in bars and other places. "One of the few places we can interact with adults who smoke is in bars and nightclubs where typically the owner can set the smoking policy," says Mr. Singleton.

But the health sponsors of Arizona's proposed ban on smoking respond that there "clear differences" between the two plans. If Reynolds's sponsored proposal were voted in, it would potentially allow smoking at 3,000 restaurants that have bars. In addition, the Reynolds proposal does not provide enforcement.

"Their proposal just protects the pocketbook of Big Tobacco," says Troy Corder, communications director for Smoke-Free Arizona.

Antitobacco activists had hoped to get an infusion of money as a result of the government's racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco companies. But Judge Gladys Kessler did not fine them massive amounts of money because an appeals court had already limited the potential penalty.

However, Judge Kessler did prohibit the companies from marketing cigarettes by using terms such as "low tar" as of Jan. 1, 2007. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2003 these brands represented 85 percent of all cigarettes sold in the US. However, antismoking groups expect the tobacco companies to adapt.

"The European Union and Brazil banned the use of light and low-tar cigarettes, but during the transition, the industry color-coded the products," says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington. "By the time the ban went into effect, smokers didn't need the labels."

However, antismoking forces can expect an influx of fresh money sometime in the future once Mayor Bloomberg decides how to distribute his funds to combat global tobacco use. "It could be the start of one of the most important public-health campaigns in history," says Mr. Myers. "It could speed up the process of reducing tobacco use in developing nations and those with the highest smoking rates."

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