Massachusetts Takes A Swipe at Tobacco And Gun Lobbies

Massachusetts has taken on two of the nation's largest lobbies - tobacco and guns - and the state appears to be a formidable foe.

The state plans to implement the toughest cigarette regulation in the nation next year, requiring tobacco companies to subject cigarettes to a new level of testing and make public all ingredients used in them.

At the same time, the attorney general is proposing the country's strictest handgun-safety rules, which would mandate that all firearms sold in Massachusetts meet quality standards and include state-of-the-art safety features.

In heated opposition to these proposals, the top four cigarette-makers have sued the state. They claim the ingredient-disclosure requirement forces them to reveal trade secrets, which are protected under federal commerce laws. Meanwhile, officials at Smith & Wesson, a gun manufacturer that employs 900 people in Springfield, Mass., have threatened to move the plant out of state if the handgun laws are put in place.

If lawmakers' efforts prevail, they will pave the way for similar measures in states across the country. The gun restrictions would be the first to use the approach of regulating firearm safety under consumer-protection laws rather than by banning certain types of guns.

In the case of the cigarette-disclosure law, a court decision in Massachusetts's favor could open the door for other states to regulate tobacco - and would represent a setback for tobacco companies that for decades have been insulated from state-by-state regulation.

But the battles between the state and the industries have been bruising, and observers say the policies will not succeed unless a balance is struck between public health and economic well-being.

"The industries' strategy is to play upon people's fears about economic insecurity," says Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger. "My strategy is to expose these threats for what they are. I've got to convince the public that the benefits of safety will outweigh the alleged negatives."

Political analysts say that if any state can rein in the powerful tobacco and gun industries, it is Massachusetts. "There are a bunch of antitobacco lobbyists up here; the antigun lobby is real in Massachusetts," says political scientist Lou DiNatale at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "These are ... steps that conform to overwhelming public opinion."

But those on the front lines of the fight are less sure. "Smith & Wesson is a major corporate player here in Springfield," Mayor Michael Albano says wistfully, because of his support for gun regulation.

In efforts to reach a compromise with Smith & Wesson, the state emphasizes that the company is a quality gun manufacturer and does not make the cheap, dangerous "Saturday night specials" at which the proposals are aimed. Gun-safety advocates are concerned that the proposals requiring Massachusetts guns to have load indicators and child-proof devices will be dropped in the negotiations.

Compromise is not an option in the cigarette-disclosure case, which is now before a federal court. The tobacco companies' suit complains that the state regulation, which would more accurately test the nicotine level in cigarettes, duplicates testing at the federal level.

They say, too, that the state's plans to ask for a list of all cigarette ingredients and to make the list public infringe on trademark rights. That kind of law would regulate cigarettes more stringently than foods or beverages, says David Remes, an attorney for the four largest cigarettemakers. The US Food and Drug Administration allows food and beverage companies to list secret ingredients as "flavorings," without specifying what those are.

Tobacco officials say they will not stop selling their products here, as had been reported.

Massachusetts officials say the tobacco industry's stance is little more than bullying. "The states have a right to intervene when federal regulations are not stringent enough," says Greg Connolly, director of the Tobacco Control Program at the Massachusetts Public Health Council. "I think it's about time."

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