Cigarette vending machines would be banned in Takoma Park under a strict new anti-smoking law proposed by City Council members who say eliminating the machines would help curb smoking among the young.
"The same reason you don't see vending machines for wine and beer is the same reason you shouldn't have vending machines for cigarettes," said City Council member Hank Prensky. "Why should you dispense something linked to cancer, to death in a machine that a child can -- and will -- operate?"
The City Council, which informally endorsed the ban last week, is set to vote Monday night on the proposal, which would go into effect later this month.
If the ban is enacted, Takoma Park would become the first community in the region to ban cigarette vending machines. Cities and counties across the nation are increasingly adopting such bans in efforts to keep tobacco products out of the hands of children.
"There really has been an explosion," said Mark Pertschuk, executive director of the California-based Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights. He says there are 45 bans nationwide, calling them the latest advance in the anti-smoking movement that started in the 1960s with warning labels on cigarette packages.
A Minneapolis suburb became the first to prohibit cigarette vending machines with a law that went into effect in January. The idea has been endorsed by Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan, and cities such as New York and Pittsburgh are considering bans.
Representatives of the nation's tobacco industry say the laws are unnecessary, and denounce them as another outgrowth of anti-smoking hysteria.
"The fact is that less than 5 percent of cigarettes are sold through vending machines," said Brennan Dawson of the Tobacco Institute, an association of manufacturers of cigarettes and tobacco products. Dawson said that most vending machines are in places not frequented by or accessible to children, such as industrial workplaces and cocktail lounges.
Dawson and other members of the tobacco and vending industry argued that the way to keep children from smoking is to enforce the laws already on the books.
In Maryland, it is illegal for anyone under 18 -- under 16 in Virginia and the District -- to purchase tobacco products.
"Vending machines are not the issue. Enforcement of the law is the issue," Dawson said.
Kathleen Scheg, of the anti-smoking group Action on Smoking and Health, countered that the machines make enforcement impossible.
"If you are as tall as a coin slot on a vending machine, you can purchase cigarettes," she said. Pertschuk noted that cigarettes are often in the same machines as chewing gum and snacks.
"Think about this issue. Cigarettes kill 400,000 Americans a year . . . more than illicit drugs, more than alcohol, yet we sell them in vending machines that literally a 9-year-old could operate. It's crazy," said Pertschuk.
But, Joseph Sciacca, whose Executive Vending Co. has one vending machine in Takoma Park, doesn't think a ban will do any good. "Kids today get alcohol and drugs, and they don't get them out of a machine."
"Bottom line, kids are going to get cigarettes anyway," said Beth Kaufman, sales manager of the National Trading Sales Corp. in Landover.
Kaufman sees a threat to her livelihood. Tougher laws and higher taxes, Kaufman said, "are going to drive me out of business. It's that simple."
Takoma Park Mayor Stephen J. Del Giudice said he has been contacted by a representative of the tobacco industry and that he expects mixed reaction from business interests in the community of 15,000 residents.
Still, he expects approval of the bill, which would adopt and strengthen Montgomery County's tough restrictions on smoking in the workplace for Takoma Park. The bill would also ban the free distribution of cigarettes in the city, prohibit smoking in day-care centers and require restaurants with 25 or more seats, instead of the current 50 or more, to set aside separate smoking sections.